In the February 2013 issue of the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, Dr. Gary Smalls and colleagues published research on their use of PET scans to search for abnormal deposits of tau protein in the brains of living people. Excessive tau has been correlated medically with such degenerative brain conditions as Alzheimer’s disease and CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) seen in deceased NFL football players. CTE is associated with depression, memory loss, and violent outbursts. The brain of retired middle linebacker Junior Seau was proven to have CTE after it was donated to a neuropathologist by his family following Seau’s suicide.
In this study the researchers PET scanned 5 retired NFL players (aged 45-73) who had cognitive and mood problems and 5 age-matched controls. All NFL players showed significantly more accumulation of tau protein in their subcortical brain regions and amygdalas (the area of the brain involved in processing fear, anxiety, and anger). This study is the first time a scanning technique has been used to discern incipient degenerative brain disease in the brains of living athletes. It remains to be seen whether this technique can and will be applied to victims of TBI in other settings such as falls, car crashes and so forth.