Researchers said they have confirmed the first case of a living person diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy more commonly known as CTE—in a former NFL player.
CTE is a degenerative brain disease found in athletes, military veterans, and others with a history of repetitive brain trauma, according to the Concussion Legacy Foundation. The breakthrough findings, published in the journal Neurosurgery, could lead to new potential treatments and testing for the disease.
Lead author of the study Dr. Bennet Omalu confirmed to CNN that the player referenced in the study was Fred McNeill, a former Minnesota Vikings linebacker who died in 2015. The only way to diagnose the disease is to conduct a brain exam after death.
A team of researchers from Northshore University HealthSystem in Evanston, Illinois, had already made the diagnosis four years ago, where brain scans indicated the presence of a protein linked with CTE called tau. But scientists had to confirm these findings since they can only be diagnosed post-mortem by examining brain tissue.
According to the Concussion Legacy Foundation, CTE “is caused by repetitive hits to the head sustained over a period of years.” The foundation said that most people with CTA suffered “hundreds or thousands of head impacts,” even if they did not cause full-blown concussions.
Dr. Julian Bailes, co-director of Northshore, said on Wednesday, Nov. 15 that if the findings hold up it could be a major step to finding a way to help people with the condition. There is currently no treatment or cure for the disease.
“If there’s ever a treatment developed, you can test the response to it,” Bailes told the Chicago Tribune. “If you can trust the scans, you can tell a football player he shouldn’t keep playing, or tell someone in the military he can’t [be exposed to] explosions.”
The confirmation was found after an autopsy of one of the former NFL players who underwent a scan four years ago. He had his brain examined after death, where it was revealed he had been suffering from CTE.
Bailes told USA Today that the disease forms a “very unique pattern.”
“This is the first to have that brain specimen correlation. … It was very nice to get that specific confirmation of that scientific truth,” Bailes told USA Today on Wednesday.
According to the Chicago Tribune, the patient, McNeill, played football for 22 years in total, including 12 seasons in the NFL—suffering from just one reported concussion.
After finishing his football career, McNeill graduated from William Mitchell College of Law, in Minnesota, and went on to serve as a lawyer for more than 20 years.
However by age 59, and after losing several jobs due to his declining performance, he showed signs of the disease, including memory loss, depression, and a lack of impulse control. He was later diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, before dying at the age 63, the Chicago Tribune reports.
Researchers hope the findings will he spur treatment for the disease, while patients are still alive.
“It’s only one case report, but that’s the way science begins,” Bailes told USA Today. “There’s more to understanding, but this is a nice demonstration of the correlation of a living scan and an autopsy of the brain.”
Dr. Omalu told CNN that it a test for CTA will hit the market in the near future, “We are looking at less than five years.”