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Arizona researchers may have first CTE test for living people

This combination of photos provided by Boston University shows sections from a normal brain, left, and from the brain of former University of Texas football player Greg Ploetz, right, in stage IV of chronic traumatic encephalopathy. According to a report released on Tuesday, July 25, 2017 by the Journal of the American Medical Association, research on the brains of 202 former football players has confirmed what many feared in life _ evidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, a devastating disease in nearly all the samples, from athletes in the NFL, college and even high school. (Dr. Ann McKee/BU via AP)

PHOENIX — Arizona researchers may have developed the first test to diagnose someone with chronic traumatic encephalopathy, aka CTE, before they die.

“They’ve collected a large number of candidate biomarkers. These are markers that we think are going to very useful,” Barrow Neurological Institute Dr. Javier Cardenas said of how the test — developed in partnership with the Translational Genomics Research Institute — works.

“And now, what is going on is we’re testing those biomarkers to see if they do predictive diagnosis of concussion and when somebody has recovered.”

Prior to the Barrow-TGen test, the only way to diagnosis CTE was an autopsy.

In a study released this week, Boston University said CTE was found in nearly every brain that had seen multiple head injuries, such as those sustained by professional football players and other athletes.

“What [the study] is suggesting is the length of time as well as the number of exposures you have to head injury, you’re more likely to develop something like CTE,” Cardenas, who directs Barrow’s Brain Injury and Concussion Center, said.

Cardenas said the new test searches for elevated traces of tau protein, which binds cells in the central nervous system. Damage to these proteins is believed to play a large factor in CTE and is also tied to Alzheimer’s disease.

“In both disease states, you have abnormal deposits of tau protein.” he said. “In Alzheimer’s disease, there are tau protein deposits in certain areas of the brain than are different than what you see in CTE.”

In brains afflicted with CTE, “the issue is when tau is deposited in high amounts in an abnormal area.”

However, it is unknown if CTE and Alzheimer’s are related.

“That is one hypothesis however, what we don’t know is if this tau protein is really the problem or if it represents the brain trying to heal, out of a response of trying to actually do something positive but going awry due to multiple injuries,” Cardenas said.

Cardenas has researched how much abuse the human brain can take before it becomes irreparably damaged and the person suffers a downward spiral of marked by depression, cognitive impairment, impulse control, fits of violence and mood swings and, in some cases, suicide.

And, despite the new test, Cardenas said researchers still have more questions than answers.

“What we do not know is the severity of CTE we see on the [brain] tissue and if that equals severity in the living [person],” he said.

Cardenas said he hoped the test allows researchers to, “identify a concussion objectively, but more importantly identify when a brain has healed enough to return to play and then whether or not there are other markers that indicate long-term changes associated with CTE.”

But Cardenas said the early research has already shown that changes need to be made to protect people — and their brains.

“There’s no question that all sport will have to change and evolved for us to continue participating safely,” he said.