Scientists Have Discovered a Way to Diagnose CTE in Living Patients

The neurodegenerative brain disease linked to football players had previously been diagnosable only after death.

Researchers from Boston University say they have figured out how to make a chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) diagnosis in the living. In a new study published in PLOS ONE, the researchers announced they had identified a new biomarker that would allow them to test for the neurodegenerative brain disease in living patients. CTE, linked to football players and other athletes that experience repetitive blows to the head, had previously only been diagnosable through a full brain analysis posthumously.

“The findings in this study are the early steps toward identifying CTE during life,” said Ann McKee, MD, Director of the CTE Center at Boston University, in a statement. “Once we can successfully diagnose CTE in living individuals, we will be much close to discovering treatments for those who suffer from it.”

The breakthrough discovery came after the researchers looked at the brains of 23 former college and professional football players, 50 non-athletes with Alzheimer’s disease, and 18 healthy adults. They found that the brains of the football players with CTE had higher levels of CCL11, “a protein previously associated with age-associated cognitive decline.” The data also showed a positive correlation between heightened CCL11 levels and the years that individuals were at risk for repetitive head trauma. CCL11 is a secreted protein the body uses to help regulate the immune system and inflammation.

Both CTE and Alzheimer’s are associated with the presence of abnormal tau proteins in the brain. By identifying higher CCL11 levels in the football players, the researchers believe they’ve found a way to distinguish CTE from Alzheimer’s, as well as an opportunity to measure the protein and potentially give patients a CTE diagnosis while alive.

“Not only did this research show the potential for CTE diagnosis during life, but it also offers a possible mechanism for distinguishing between CTE and other diseases,” said study author and postdoctoral fellow Jonathan Cherry, PhD. “By making it possible to distinguish between normal individuals, individuals with Alzheimer’s disease, and CTE therapies can become more targeted and hopefully more effective.”

CTE disease symptoms typically don’t become noticeable until eight to 10 years after the repetitive trauma injury and the onset of the disease. Eventually the disease causes memory loss, impaired judgment, impulse control problems, depression, confusion, aggression, and in some cases, dementia. A study from the Boston University’s CTE Center earlier this year found the disease in 110 of 111 (99 percent) former National Football League (NFL) players. Discovering a method for making a CTE diagnosis in the living would allow scientists to measure the current prevalence of the disease.

The next step for Boston University researchers will be to determine “whether increased levels of CCL11 are an early or late finding in the CTE disease process and whether CCL11 levels might be able to predict the severity of an individual’s disease,” said McKee.

For NFL players and others exposed to brain trauma, a CTE diagnosis while alive would open the opportunity for potential treatment regimens for CTE and its symptoms. Early findings suggest that cannabinoids, particularly cannabidiol (CBD), possesses neuroprotective properties that can reduce swelling and neurological impairment to limit brain damage and facilitate recovery.

Medical Marijuana Inc.’s subsidiary Kannalife™ Sciences holds two licenses with the National Institutes for Health for U.S. Patent 6,630,507 “Cannabinoids as Antioxidants and Neuroprotectants.” The ‘507 patent describes the antioxidant and neuroprotective properties of CBD. Kannalife’s research team has examined the effects of CBD on oxidative stress and neurodegenerative-related disorders and is currently using the licenses to develop novel cannabinoid-based therapeutic drugs to treat those with a CTE diagnosis while living.

While the NFL currently prohibits its players using cannabis, NFL officials recently said they’re open to studying the potential of medical marijuana therapies and how they may help players. If players are eventually able to receive a CTE diagnosis while alive, there will likely be more pressure on the league to permit access to cannabinoids.

The full study, “CCL11 is increased in the CNS in chronic traumatic encephalopathy but not in Alzheimer’s disease,” is an open access article available via PLOS ONE.

Learn more about the research into cannabinoids for CTE through our education page.