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Sports-related brain disease CTE will some day shift from a post-mortem discovery to a treatable condition long before symptoms start, much like cancer, say local researchers and doctors speaking in Cambridge today.
"The future will be, as players are keeping track of how many head injuries and concussions they have, those would determine when they start to get tested to possibly prevent CTE from ever occurring," said Rudy Tanzi, professor neurology at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, who also advises professional sports teams.
"Early prediction, early detection and early intervention to stop that pathology," he said.
Tanzi, along with a panel of other medical professionals and former athletes, are slated to lay out the most current breakthroughs underway surrounding chronic traumatic encephalopathy at the Powering Precision Health Summit.
CTE has been strongly linked to contact sports like football. It was found in the brains of Aaron Hernandez and former Pats linebacker Junior Seau, who killed himself in 2012.
Researchers have discovered the presence of the tau protein in brains studied for CTE after death. That protein leads to tangles in the brain that act as a brush fire, and head trauma is the match that causes inflammation to spread. For now, there is no way to diagnose CTE in the living.
But local biotech companies are working to change this. Lexington-based Quanterix is focusing on ways to detect the tau protein in blood with ultra-sensitive tools - which, Tanzi said, are "equivalent to finding a grain of sand in 2,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools."
Cambridge-based AbbVie and Biogen are working on immunotherapies to stop the tau from spreading.
These new technologies couldn't be more welcome, said panelist Peter Cronan, former Boston College football player and NFL linebacker. He remembers a slam to the head so forceful that he couldn't accurately name the day of the week.
"I've good news and bad news," the doctor told Cronan, now 62. "Your cognitive impairment is no worse than other people your age."
But, the doctor added, "There's no way to know how it'll impact end of life."
It is this uncertainty that needs to change, he said.
"Watching some of my friends over the years, there's obvious deterioration occurring," Cronan told the Herald yesterday. "And we can tie it all back to what we did as young men."
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