Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Breakthrough study could allow CTE to be diagnosed in living football players, which is bad news for NFL

Alex Reimer
September 27, 2017 - 3:53 pm

Boston University researchers have discovered a key biomarker for CTE that may allow scientists to diagnose the degenerative brain disease in living patients. Currently, it can only be diagnosed posthumously. 

The scientific breakthrough could change the landscape of football, and the NFL, forever.

In a study published Tuesday in the journal PLOS ONE, researchers examined the brains of 23 former football players who suffered from CTE, as well as 50 non-athletes who grappled with Alzheimer’s disease in the latter stages of their lives and 18 non-athlete control subjects. They found elevated levels of a protein called CCL11 in the football players with CTE compared to the controlled group or subjects with Alzheimer’s. 

“To me, it feels like maybe now we can start going in the other direction,” said lead researcher Dr. Ann McKee, per the Washington Post. “We’ve been going down, and everything has just gotten more and more depressing. And now it’s like, ‘Yeah, we’re going to actually find some answers here.’”

While a lot more research is needed, this is one of the biggest breakthroughs since Dr. Bennet Omalu first identified CTE 12 years ago. The NFL tried to squash his findings, and has also stood in the way of further CTE research. Last year, the league pulled funding from a study that would’ve tried to find out how to discover CTE in living patients. The NFL cited the appointment of lead researcher Robert Stein, a firm critic of the league, as its reason for declining to back the examinations. 

At this point, active players are largely in the dark about the status of their brains. The ability to identify CTE in living people would change all of that, and further thrust the connection between football and brain trauma into the spotlight. It’s conceivable there are players who have CTE right now, but just don’t know it. Last week, BU announced Aaron Hernandez suffered from Stage 3 of the disease before he hanged himself in his prison cell earlier this year. Hernandez was just 27 years old and only played professional football for three seasons.

All it would take is one active player to be diagnosed with CTE for the league to be sent into a public relations crisis. Granted, that’s likely several years away, but it’s a situation the NFL must start preparing for. 

It would make the task of selling a safer game damn near impossible. That’s for sure.