CTE Found in Living Brain

While there have been a handful of living athletes diagnosed with CTE, the only way to formally confirm presence of the disease is by examining the brain after death. Doctors are working to find the best way to identify the disease in living brains, and McNeill's case is a major step in the process.

At age 59, just two years before his death, Fred McNeill had MRI and PET scans performed on his brain which revealed several concerning findings

  • enlarged ventricles
  • brain tissue atrophy
  • Tau protein accumulation.

In the years following these results, McNeill's family reports that he was completely transformed by the disease. He showed both cognitive and emotional problems which significantly affected the family. The recently published Neurosurgery report revealed that Fred became unable to "button his shirts, zip his pants or tie his shoes, and eventually feed himself." 

 

CTE is a devastating disease that affects not only patients, but families as well. The disease is characteristic among contact sport populations who undergo repeat head injuries for years on end. Most people think this just means concussion injuries, but studies show that even less severe "sub-concussive" injuries can contribute to the disease over time.

In the event of a head injury, tiny structural proteins are knocked loose and begin to accumulate in the brain cells. As we covered in the Brain Basics (Aging Brain) section, oxidative stress can cause these proteins to mis-fold and tangle up. As accumulation nears the tipping point, the result is the disruption of communication between the brain, body, and mind. 

See Concussion Basics to learn more about concussion pathology beneath the surface.

 

Fred McNeill's experiences a number of symptoms which further explain the effects of repeat injuries. When the brain cannot communicate properly, we lose control of our brain and body losing things like;  

  • the ability to control our muscles and orchestrate fluid limb movement 
    • Fred suffered from motor deficits, severe muscle twitching, and severe muscle atrophy in nearly all muscles tested.
  • the ability to organize thoughts and carry out activities of daily life
    • Fred was admitted to a nursing home for severe dehydration, malnourishment, and failure to thrive. 
  • the ability to access our intellectual cognition
    • Fred was a Law school graduate who passed his bar examination, but years later he suffered extreme debilitating cognitive deficit.
 

The effects of such a disease are devastating not only to patients but also to surrounding friends and family. We all want to live well into old age, but in order to do so we must protect ourselves from these circumstances.

CTE is an obvious threat to contact sport athletes, evident by the decreases in participation among youth and adult athletes. In a world where no solutions exist, our only choice is to quit. 

We're here to proide alternatives, because quitting isn't the only option. 

For more on this topic, and more, stay tuned for upcoming material. Please, leave a comment and tell us what you'd like to see published next!

 

Citations

Bennet Omalu, Gary W Small, Julian Bailes, Linda M Ercoli, David A Merrill, Koon-Pong Wong, Sung-Cheng Huang, Nagichettiar Satyamurthy, Jennifer L Hammers, John Lee, Robert P Fitzsimmons, Jorge R Barrio; Postmortem Autopsy-Confirmation of Antemortem [F-18]FDDNP-PET Scans in a Football Player With Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, Neurosurgery, , nyx536, https://doi.org/10.1093/neuros/nyx536