Researchers from Phoenix-based Banner Alzheimer’s Institute (BAI) and Mayo Clinic Arizona will participate in a new $16 million federally funded study of former professional and college football players.
The study attempts to create methods to detect and diagnose a serious brain disease known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) before death.
Under a seven-year, multi-center grant from the National Institutes of Health/National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NIH/NINDS), the two Arizona research facilities will work with physicians and scientists from Boston University, the Cleveland Clinic and New York University.
“There is an urgent need to clarify the clinical and biological consequences of repetitive head injuries, as well as the factors that lead some but not all athletes to develop chronic traumatic encephalopathy, and to use this information to find the best ways to treat and prevent this condition,” said Eric Reiman, MD, executive director of BAI and one of the four principal investigators for the grant.
There are many critical questions about CTE that are unanswered, said Dr. Robert Stern, lead principal investigator, clinical core director of the Boston University Alzheimer’s Disease and CTE Center.
“We are optimistic that this project will lead to many of these answers, by developing accurate methods of detecting and diagnosing CTE during life, and by examining genetic and other risk factors for this disease,” Stern said.
The researchers will characterize the clinical features of CTE and develop clinical criteria for the disorder.
They will also seek to clarify the nature and extent of head injuries and genetic factors that lead some but not all football players to develop clinical and biological features of CTE. Project data will be shared with researchers around the world to promote understanding of this disease, ultimately leading to successful methods of preventing and treating CTE.
Mayo Clinic will conduct extensive clinical examinations, advanced MRI scans, experimental blood tests and other tests in an effort to detect the changes in the brain associated with CTE on study participants.
Banner will conduct state-of-the art PET scans in the same research participants, including information about the accumulation of an abnormal tau protein, a characteristic feature of this disease seen in the brains of autopsied individuals, and assist in the analysis of the brain imaging data.
CTE is a degenerative brain disease that occurs in individuals with repetitive head injuries and is characterized by changes in behavior, mood and memory, and may lead to the development of dementia and Parkinson’s disease.
CTE has been described most extensively in boxers and football players, but has also been reported in individuals who have played in other contact sports and in some military veterans.
Many cases have been diagnosed in deceased former professional football players, and currently CTE can only be diagnosed by autopsy.
The new grant will fund a study in which former professional football players, former college football players and a control group of individuals without any history of contact sports or brain injury will be examined over a few years’ time.
“Although we’ve made some progress in understanding CTE, the clinical presentation of this disorder is still not well characterized,” said Charles Adler, MD, PhD, professor of neurology at the Mayo Clinic and principal investigator for the study’s combined Arizona site. “The main goal of our study is to identify biomarkers that predict which individuals will have CTE, as currently we are only able to make the diagnosis after death.”
David Dodick, MD, professor of neurology and director of the Mayo Clinic Sports Neurology and Concussion Program, will provide his extensive clinical expertise in CTE to the research team.
“This study will bring together many of the nation’s foremost experts who will use their clinical expertise and the most advanced tools to develop diagnostic and prognostic markers of CTE,” Dodick said. “Ultimately, the ability to identify who is at risk and what the earliest manifestations of the disease are will enable strategies aimed at preventing the disease before it develops or treating the disease after it’s begun.”
Adler added that by finding tests to predict who may develop CTE during life, we then expect to find treatments to stop this devastating disease.
Banner Alzheimer’s Institute and Mayo Clinic’s collaboration in this study is part of both organization’s commitment to furthering Arizona’s leadership position in scientific advancement.
They are key members of the Arizona Alzheimer’s Consortium, the nation’s leading model of statewide collaboration in Alzheimer’s disease research, and the Arizona Parkinson’s Disease Consortium, a collaboration in Parkinson’s disease research.