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Signs of Brain Damage Show Up in Scans of Living, Retired NFL Players
Date:1/22/2013

By Lisa Esposito
HealthDay Reporter

TUESDAY, Jan. 22 (HealthDay News) -- Until now, scientists could only identify a sign of brain damage -- called tau protein tangles -- during an autopsy. Considered a hallmark of Alzheimer's disease, tau tangles also occur in a devastating brain condition caused by head trauma.

In a new study, researchers describe how they pinpointed signs of tau in five former National Football League players who are still alive. The issue of sports-related concussions and brain injuries -- particularly among football players -- has generated headlines recently, especially after star NFL linebacker Junior Seau died by suicide last year.

The hope is that early identification of signs of brain injury in athletes would enable doctors to alert players to the possibility of devastating long-term damage before it occurs.

For the new study, researchers gave the ex-players a radioactive chemical that binds to tau tangles in the brain so that affected areas light up on PET scan imaging tests.

"All the players had high signals in the brain in areas that other studies of autopsy in chronic traumatic encephalopathy patients have found high concentrations of tau," said lead study author Dr. Gary Small, a professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Seau, who died by suicide last May at age 43, was found to have tau tangles in his brain during an autopsy, according to a Jan. 10 statement from the U.S. National Institutes of Health. The NIH concluded that he had suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a condition associated with multiple hits to the head and concussions.

The new UCLA study appears online Jan. 22 in the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry. Because of the study's small size and design, it's far from definitive and will have to be verified by more extensive research, Small noted.

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