A scientific breakthrough has allowed chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) to finally be detected in a living patient.
A new study conducted by lead author and pathologist Bennet Omalu found that medical experts can diagnose the disease while in a living patient by spotting the presence of tau proteins — a signature protein of CTE. Previously, an autopsy was required in order to formally diagnose the illness.
Omalu revealed to CNN that the player who participated in the study was Fred McNeill, who played for the Minnesota Vikings and passed away in 2015. Omalu said he first diagnosed McNeill with CTE back in 2012 using a brain scan that picked up traces of tau.
After McNeill’s passing, specialists were able to confirm Omalu’s diagnosis through an autopsy.
Omalu has been dedicated to CTE research for many years and is credited with first discovering the disease in professional football players. His work inspired the 2015 film “Concussion” starring Will Smith. His case study with McNeill was published in the journal “Neurosurgery” this week.
Initially, the NFL largely rejected CTE and its severity. The league has only recently acknowledged that there is a direct connection between the disease and sports concussions. However, it’s still a very overlooked issue as significant change has not been made to the game or players’ gear to minimize their susceptibility to concussions.
However, the CTE conversation was resurrected earlier this year following the death of former New England Patriots player Aaron Hernandez, who died of an apparent suicide while serving a life prison sentence for murder. Following an autopsy, Hernandez was found to have “the most severe case they had ever seen in someone of Aaron’s age,” according to his family’s attorney, The New York Times reported.
Detection of the disease also shed light on the potential origins of his erratic and violent behavior that ultimately led to his demise.
As research continues and the link between football and CTE becomes more of a reality, the NFL needs to take the issue seriously and take better care of its players. Fans and players alike are becoming more privy to this matter, and it would come as no surprise if the league starts rapidly losing its following over player safety concerns.
In the meantime, however, Omalu's case study is valuable because if we know CTE can be detected in living patients, then treatment plans can be implemented to save more players from suffering mental turmoil and tragic, untimely deaths.