Football season is over but Pentagon researchers are still watching the NFL, not for sport but for science. The NFL is very active in one of the same research areas as the Defense Department -- brain injuries.
A report in The American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry highlighted research on five retired NFL players that may have uncovered a way to detect evidence of brain disease linked to head trauma, something the Defense Department has a keen interest in given the nature of head injuries to troops in combat.
Defense Department officials say the evidence -- a build-up of a certain protein in the brain, called tau -- has only been detectable through postmortem studies. A test that would detect it in living patients could mean a way of knowing who is at risk of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE.
CTE is a degenerative neurological disease that appears linked to repeated head trauma, a longstanding problem in football.
Dr. Donald Marion, senior clinical consultant for the Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, Washington, said the kind of head injuries experienced by football players -- blunt trauma -- differs from the pressure-inflicted trauma caused by explosions.
“But we do have areas of overlap … CTE is one area,” he said.
For a great many troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan over the past decade or so, head injuries may have been caused by an improvised explosive device or a rocket hitting a vehicle. Even if they have no outward signs of injury, the pressure of the blast itself could have rattled the brain.
Direct pressure to the head as well as the abdomen and chest is transmitted through the system to the brain, according to DoD and Department of Veterans Affairs-funded research.
While the Pentagon continues to look for ways to detect concussions to minimize or prevent brain damage, finding a “marker” to show existing damage would be significant.
Dr. Julian Bailes, co-director of the NorthShore Neurological Institute in Evanston, Ill., and a co-author of the report, told CNN in an interview that the new test could be the "Holy Grail" of concussion research.
CTE likely played a role in the deaths of former NFL players Dave Duerson, Ray Easterling, Shane Dronett and Junior Seau, according to reported autopsies.
The research at the University of California, Los Angeles, looked at five former NFL players. ESPN reported the five included Fred McNeill, 59, a former Vikings linebacker; Wayne Clark, 64, formerly a quarterback with the San Diego Charges, Cincinnati Bengals and Kansas City Chiefs; and three unidentified players, ages 73, 50 and 45.
The retired players were injected with a radioactive compound that acted as a tracer by binding to the microscopic tau protein associated with CTE. The compound revealed the proteins in each case using a standard PET scan.
At Walter Reed, Marion noted that the test results of the UCLA tests are encouraging but not entirely conclusive.
“Everyone who has reviewed the study said it is preliminary and you can’t make too many conclusions about it,” he said. “It needs to be repeated with a larger number of patients.”
For one thing, it’s not entirely certain how the results from the five retired NFL players can be interpreted.
One of the subjects, Clark, had only a single concussion in his career for which he was successfully treated, said Marion.
“But he had the most striking [tau protein] deposits,” he said. “That flies in the face of the reasoning that it takes multiple concussions” to cause a serious build-up of the protein.
Still, the possibility of finding a way to detect brain injuries in the early stages is important.
“We are desperately in need of a marker for this problem,” Marion said.