In a potentially groundbreaking first, doctors say they detected chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the degenerative brain disease associated with repeated head injuries, in a living patient. Just weeks after Boston University researchers announced CCL11 proteins in the brain could indicate CTE in living patients, researchers in Chicago say they identified CTE in a retired NFL player before he died by detecting different proteins. Initially, they performed brain exams on 14 former NFL players in 2012 while all were living. Over damaged neural cells, they found clumps of tau proteins—which are believed to kill brain cells, per ABC News—with a "specific topographic signature" doctors believed indicated a CTE finding, lead author Bennet Omalu tells CNN.
Their suspicion was confirmed when former Minnesota Vikings linebacker Fred McNeill, who played football for 22 years but suffered only one reported concussion, died in 2015, allowing doctors to formally diagnose CTE during an autopsy, reports the Chicago Tribune. McNeill's wife later told researchers he'd started having trouble with simple motor skills two years after his brain was initially scanned. He was soon unable to feed himself and suffered from ALS, slurred speech, progressive dysphagia, and other health issues at his time of death, researchers write in the Neurosurgery journal. Though more work is needed to confirm the link between tau proteins and CTE, Omalu is optimistic and hopes a commercial test for CTE might be available in "less than five years." (Here's what Aaron Hernandez's brain revealed.)