Advancements in medical technology and wider clinical acceptance of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) are growing by the day. Soon, physicians could offer athletes near-definitive answers on whether they should continue contact sports at a high level.

All with a brain scan. To date, no living person has been diagnosed with CTE from multiple concussions. Instead, the physical hallmark of CTE – dangled proteins throughout the brain – has only been discovered via autopsies of former athletes.

New research is aiming to change that, and offer at-risk patients an early warning system that long-term damage has already occur, or they are at an increased risk. This is a pilot study, so larger studies will be needed to confirm the findings. For now, the idea is that a simple brain scan could be the window into your future.

CTE Early Detection

Giving patients and physicians a method to detect CTE early is vital. Athletes can take steps to reduce their chances of further injury. Steps can be taken to mitigate CTE’s more debilitating late-stage symptoms.

Commercially, safer helmets and other equipment could be developed to lessen the impact of full-contact sports. Sports could adapt to changing medical research to make the game safer.

PET Scans

Research, published in the latest issue of PNAS, used PET scans to study 14 former football players. The scans revealed various patterns of protein deposits and neurofibrillary tangles in the brain. Severity ranged from localized to extensive.

Location and extent of the of the brain abnormalities tracked closely with the athletes symptoms of cognitive impairment, anxiety and depression.

xte brain scan concussion

The research subjects ranged in age from 40 to 86. All but one, a 46-year old retired quarterback, had some combination of impairment, depression and anxiety. Out of the 14 subjects, most played on the offensive or defensive line. These players are exposed to both concussion level hits, and constant, less-forceful impacts.

CTE Research Results

Controlling for the 14 retired football players were 28 participants with no evidence of neuropsychiatric issues, and 24 participants with Alzheimer’s.

When compared to the normal control subjects, all the football players showed abnormal deposits of tau protein. Out of the 14, those who had deposits clumped only in the brain stem and amygdala had the mildest symptoms.

Increased symptoms were associated with deposits being found throughout the brain’s structure, including the amygdala, hippocampus and medial temporal lobe.

Participants with tau protein in those areas and in the ‘gray matter’ had the more severe symptoms of cognitive impairment, anxiety or depression.

The most severe symptoms were when the deposits were found in all the areas of the brain, including the ‘white matter.’ The white matter forms the brain’s highway between the two hemispheres.

Concussions and CTE

This will need more study, but researchers found evidence of Alzheimer’s beta-amyloid plaques. What is unknown is if the disease was in addition to the concussions, or if this was a final stage CTE symptom.

concussion infographic

If it is a final stage symptom, it could be a game changer in concussions and contact sports. Parents are not going to push their kids into a sport where they could possibly develop debilitating diseases as they age.


If you think you have suffered a concussion, please see your doctor to rule out possible life-threatening injuries.

Symptoms of a concussion include:

Pain. This can be mild, so don’t discount a mild headache as nothing.

Cognitive. If you see a someone disoriented after a blow to the head, it’s time for a trip to the doctor.

Psychological – Anxiety can be a symptom, especially post-concussion. I know I felt it after I suffered one last year.

Other symptoms include feeling lightheaded, poor balance, vertigo, slurred speech, ringing in the ears and vomiting.

While it may seem like a mild blow to the head, if you have any of these symptoms,visit the doctor. Better to err on the side of caution.

Athletes? Follow the latest research on repeated concussions. If the research is confirmed, PET scans could offer you a career roadmap that helps you avoid CTE and its debilitating symptoms.


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