Chronic traumatic encephalopathy, also known as CTE, is a degenerative brain disease that is being found in many professional football players and athletes who have experienced repeated head trauma. The sad fact about CTE is that currently it cannot be diagnosed until the person dies. What a difference it would in these people’s lives if we could diagnose CTE while they are living. Well, researchers at Boston University may have just figured it out.

Research Points to Protein, CLL11, as a Marker for Identifying CTE

Researchers at Boston University’s School of Medicine identified an inflammatory protein, CLL11, as a possible reflection of the presence of CTE in people’s brains. They believe the protein can be found in spinal fluid as well as the bloodstream in living patients.

Dr. Ann McKee, a co-author of the study, believes this is just the beginning, and the key to this discovery is to start finding the disease at its earliest stages. She directs the medical school’s Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy Center, which earlier this year found evidence of the degenerative disease in 110 of 111 of professional football players who donated their brains to the program after their death. McKee says the research is still far away from where it needs to be to help these players. Researchers will need to find that the protein is a reliable sign of the disease, which will include precisely understanding the levels of CLL11 in the bloodstream and how that relates to concentrations in the brain.

CTE brain NFL players health disease Boston University protein CLL11
(Dr. McKee/ Boston University)

The Study Shows Positive Signs

The research team at Boston University tapped into several brain banks including 23 brains from former athletes, 50 brains with Alzheimer’s disease, and 18 healthy brains. Researchers measured the levels of CLL11 in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex which they found is the most affected area of the brain by CTE.

They found that levels of CLL11 were remarkably higher in brains with CTE versus brains with Alzheimer’s. The levels were even greater than the healthy brains. Another correlation that the study concluded was that CLL11 levels rose as a function of years playing football.

McKee and team stumbled onto CLL11 as a possible biomarker because it is a universal sign of inflammation in the brain’s tiniest blood vessels. She believes that looking closer at the small vessels that carry oxygen to brain’s farthest recesses may be the promising tell for CTE. Stay tuned to more research from McKee and team as they are determined to help find a way to diagnose this degenerative disease.

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