Last week I tweeted about a story on Deadspin. It was a very well written article, one that should make us hopeful and fearful at the same time; at the very least it is thought-provoking. Even after reading it several times I still feel that Kyle Wagner absolutely did everyone a service by publishing this piece;
The question, after a decade of brain-slicing autopsies, is when any of this will help players before they’re dead. Doctors can’t just crack open living patients’ skulls and lop off slices of their brains to stick under a microscope.
But new research at UCLA is using a cutting-edge biomarker that can attach itself to tau protein tangles so that they show up on PET scans of living subjects. Dr. Gary Small is currently running a pilot study on retired NFL players, imaging their brains in place. If he is successful, his work would reorient the science of head injuries around saving lives instead of merely contextualizing deaths.
“I’ve always sort of thought of tau imaging as the holy grail on the issue of chronic brain damage, especially CTE,” said Dr. Julian Bailes, one of the founders of the Brain Injury Research Institute (BIRI).[...]
PET imaging tech is half a century old, and though FDDNP is relatively new, it’s still been around for years. So it’s strange to think about the marker being on the cutting edge of a fairly recently discovered brain disease. If the marker can find and pinpoint CTE, why hadn’t anyone tried it before now? And for that matter, why isn’t it already in use?[...]
In Las Vegas, Dr. Charles Bernick is attacking the same problem from a different angle. Instead of looking for CTE itself, Bernick wants to know how the disease spreads and changes its victim over time. He’s wrapping up the first year of an ongoing study tracking the cognitive health of over 100 boxers and MMA fighters, some of whom enlisted at the urging of a family member or spouse who’d started to notice changes in behavior. The goal of the study is to pinpoint when, exactly, a fighter should hang up the gloves.[...]
Brain injuries in football happen because of a phenomenon that Bailes, now co-director of NorthShore Neurological Institute, calls “brain slosh.” “That’s where the brain is free to move around inside the skull, regardless of helmets or external protection, because it floats inside a bath of fluid called Cerebral Spinal Fluid (CSF),” he explained. “Despite the fact that sports and the military looks at brain protection from the outside, we think you have to look at it from the inside.”
In fact, Bailes is working on an absurdly simple accessory that could protect brains from being injured in the first place.[...]
As with the search for a tau protein biomarker, there just isn’t the widespread need for continued research in CTE the way there is for other forms of brain deterioration. A representative at one company who asked to not be named explained that, while recent talk about pulling the military into the ongoing brain-injury discussion could go a long way toward making the financials work, it still wouldn’t be enough. Despite all the attention it’s gotten, a health crisis affecting wealthy young celebrities in America’s most popular sport is still only a niche concern.
“It’s not like cancer, where your constituency is everyone, or even Alzheimer’s, where there are millions,” he said. “We just don’t get hit in the head very often.”