Football Season Begins as Study of Retired NFL Players Looks for Symptoms and Biomarkers of Chronic Traumatic Brain Injury

The National Football League (NFL) season doesn’t officially kick off until September 5, but a familiar tale is starting to repeat itself. So far, 11 players have been listed on injured reserve because of concussions suffered during pre-season games and practices.

The fear that athletes who suffer repeated blows to the head may end up with a preventable cause of dementia called chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) is leading neurodegeneration researchers at Penn to join in a collaborative study of retired NFL players, to see if there are any clinical symptoms (such as depression, disinhibition, cognitive or motor impairment) and biomarkers present that can be measured and tracked over time. The ultimate goal is to use the clinical symptoms and biomarkers to be able to diagnose CTE during lifetime, as the only way to diagnose CTE currently is through an examination of brain tissue after death.

The study, done in collaboration with researchers at Boston University’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, will evaluate 100 retired NFL players, ages 40-69, who played certain high risk positions for a particular number of years. They will be compared to male non-contact sport athletes of a similar age without any history of brain injury.

The study will not determine the risk for professional football players of developing a disease, or try to estimate the incidence or prevalence of CTE. Instead, researchers hope to develop biomarker tests for CTE and to explore the clinical presentation of this disease likely to affect athletes at all levels of play, as well as other members of our society, such as combat military personnel.

Penn researchers will transfer their knowledge of neurodegenerative biomarker test development  from  their major roles in Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease cognitive biomarker efforts. In 2009, the Penn team announced that a biomarker test was capable of confirming or ruling out Alzheimer’s disease; the test is now being used in research studies and similar tests are being evaluated in other conditions.

While there are only 1,800 active NFL players and 2,700 former players, studies like this can help researchers better understand how CTE manifests, and hopefully find biomarker tests to detect disease and targets for possible neurodegeneration treatments. Future studies may try to track people at high risk over time to map out characteristics and risk factors of CTE.

The NFL has issued new rules aimed at preventing injuries on the field, but the more tests available for on sidelines and at hospitals, the better.

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