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Diagnosing Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy in the Living

While the neurodegenerative disorder is only diagnosed post-mortem, a new study highlights a potential MRI biomarker that may help characterizing CTE in the living

By
Meeri Kim, Contributor
Wednesday, June 13, 2018

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Football players, boxers and other contact sport athletes are at risk for chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a progressive neurodegenerative disorder linked to a history of repeated head injuries. Currently, CTE can only be diagnosed after death by looking for microscopic evidence of abnormal protein aggregates in the brain.

Post-mortem studies have found CTE-related atrophy in the limbic structures of the brain, including the amygdala, hippocampus and cingulate gyrus. A new study by researchers from Harvard Medical School and Boston University explored whether MRI scans of these structures in could be used to diagnose CTE in symptomatic living individuals. The results were published May 19 in the journal Brain Imaging and Behavior.

They performed MRI scans for 86 symptomatic former NFL players, each with at least 12 years of experience, along with 22 healthy controls. Volumetric analysis of the MRI data focused on the amygdala, hippocampus and cingulate gyrus. They also collected data on neurobehavioral measures by testing for cognitive function, mood and behavior.

They found that the former football players had greater dysfunction in mood/behavior, lower verbal memory skills, and reduced volumes bilaterally in all three limbic structures. The researchers also found significant links between the reduced volume of the cingulate gyrus and worse psychomotor speed/executive function, as well as the reduced volume of the right hippocampus and worse visual memory.

Although additional research is needed to confirm these findings, the study provides evidence for using disrupted limbic system structures as a promising biomarker for CTE in living individuals.

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