Super Bowl season is upon us, and every year more and more focus this time of year gets placed on a brain disease known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). It is a disease similar to Alzheimer’s symptomatically, but is caused by repeated concussive and sub-concussive head trauma.
The movie Concussion, released late 2015, is based on the doctor who discovered the disease, Dr. Bennet Omalu and his struggle to publicize the condition in the face of opposition and stonewalling from the National Football League.
That the NFL would fight against the legitimacy of CTE as a bona fide diagnosis is unfortunate but understandable. A league fighting for its future with declining ratings should be expected to look at such accusations with suspicion. Nonetheless, it does seem indisputable that CTE is a serious football-related illness with grave consequences for sufferers and their families. Suicides and even more horrific murder-suicides committed by professional football players with confirmed CTE brain damage have occurred as recently as 2012.
The good news is that following years of fighting between the medical community and the NFL, both sides seem to be cooperating more readily on the issue as the reality of CTE becomes more known and accepted. Some minor advances have been made towards prevention, one of them being a simple U-shaped mechanism like a small airplane pillow that lightly clamps the jugular vein to gently slow blood flow out of the brain, giving brain tissue a tighter blood cushion against impact. Research has also been done on cannabis, showing that cannabinoids have neuroprotective properties that can help repair brain damage after a head injury or impact. The NFL has been considering changing its policy against medical cannabis in light of this new research.
But the main problem with the disease is that it cannot be diagnosed during life, making it virtually impossible to treat, as well as a source of nagging contention between the NFL and the medical community. CTE can only be diagnosed retroactively post-mortem, which admittedly is not very helpful for patients.
This year may change all that, with diagnostic firm Exosome Sciences, a subsidiary of Aethlon Medical, Inc. (NASDAQ:AEMD) planning a 200-patient clinical trial to begin next quarter testing former NFL players for a blood marker called plasma exosomal tau, a stable blood byproduct of brain scar tissue generated in CTE. At a planned enrollment of 200 players, it aims to be the largest clinical trial of NFL players ever conducted.
In an earlier study, 78 former NFL players were examined for this biomarker against a control group of 16 athletes of non-contact sports. What Aethlon and Exosome found ultimately was that plasma exosomal tau levels correlated with performance on memory and psychomotor tests, and that levels of this biomarker were 9 times higher in the NFL group versus the control group. Results were published in 2016 in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease.