Study Find Brain Damage in Former NFL Players

Until now, we couldn’t see evidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy until autopsy.

F. Perry Wilson, MD MSCE

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If you happen to be reading this on a Sunday, Monday, or Thursday and live in the United States, there’s a good chance you’re watching NFL football tonight. 20 million people on average tune into these games, myself included. Go Eagles. It was my wife who captured why, I think — football players are simply the best athletes out there in terms of all around ability — strength, speed, power, and so on.

But of course there’s something else that draws us to these games — something a bit more primal — it’s, for lack of a better word, the hits. The tackles, the sacks, the bone-crunching collisions.

But it’s hard to fully enjoy the games if you’ve done a bit of reading into chronic traumatic encephalopathy — CTE — and the effect these collisions have on the individuals who play professional Football.

A recent autopsy study out of Boston University examined the brains of 376 former NFL players. 345 of those brains had evidence of CTE — that’s 92%.

Of course there is selection bias at play here — NFL players who donate their brains to science after their death are likely to do so for a reason. But it is getting pretty hard to deny there is a clear link between NFL play and what amounts to brain damage, at least qualitatively.

The problem with the diagnosis of CTE is that, at least for now, it can only be determined after death. Detecting CTE on autopsy is less than ideal for identifying potential treatment strategies, so I was excited to see a new study leveraging the power of PET MRI to identify brain injury in NFL players who are still alive.

MRI and autopsy images of brains affected with CTE. Source: Alosco et al. Alzheimers Research and Therapy, 2021.

To introduce you to this study, appearing in JAMA Network open I first need to introduce you to an 18 kilodalton protein called translocator protein or TSPO.

TSPO used to be known as the peripheral benzodiazepine receptor as it was found to bind diazepam — but that does not seem to be central to its purpose.

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F. Perry Wilson, MD MSCE

Medicine, science, statistics. Associate Professor of Medicine and Public Health at Yale. New book “How Medicine Works and When it Doesn’t” available now.