In a study of ex-pro athletes, researchers have found that a specialized, noninvasive imaging technique called magnetic resonance spectroscopy (MRS) may help diagnose chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a disorder caused by repeated head trauma that currently can only be definitively diagnosed via an autopsy. Results of the study were presented in Chicago on Wednesday at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America (RSNA) and are being called a preliminary first step toward diagnosis and maybe even treatment.

"The devastating effects of brain injuries suffered by pro football players who repeatedly suffered concussions and subconcussive brain trauma during their careers have put the spotlight on CTE," says lead author Alexander Lin, a principal investigator at the Center for Clinical Spectroscopy at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston. "However, blows to the head suffered by all athletes involved in contact sports are of increasing concern."

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as many as 3.8 million sports- and recreation-related concussions occur in the United States each year. In addition, subclinical concussions - that is, injuries that cannot be diagnosed as concussions but have similar effects - often go unrecognized Studies have shown that individuals who suffer repetitive brain trauma are more likely to experience ongoing problems, from permanent brain damage to long-term disability.

CTE is a degenerative brain disease caused by repeated brain trauma and marked by a buildup of abnormal proteins in the brain. It has been associated with memory difficulty, impulsive and erratic behavior, depression and eventually, dementia. Recently, researchers found evidence of CTE in 21-year-old Owen Thomas, the University of Pennsylvania football captain who committed suicide in April.

In Lin's study, conducted in collaboration with the Boston University Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy (CSTE), five retired professional male athletes from football, wrestling and boxing with suspected CTE and five age- and size-matched controls between the ages of 32 and 55 were examined with MRS, sometimes referred to as a "virtual biopsy." A powerful magnetic field and radio waves are used to extract information about chemical compounds within the body, using a clinical MR scanner.

The imaging found suspicious chemical changes in the former athletes' brains. They'd suffered multiple hits to the head during play and showed behavior symptoms indicating possible brain damage. The chemical changes were not found in the five healthy study participants.

"Being able to diagnose CTE could help athletes of all ages and levels," Lin says.