A chemical in the brain called a tau protein is an important part of cognitive function, at least in moderation. Ordinarily, these proteins strengthen and stabilize the neurons, allowing mental signals to travel along their designated paths. However, sometimes there’s an excess of these tau proteins. Often the result of a traumatic brain injury, such as a concussion, the tau proteins get in each other’s way, tangling up in the neurons and blocking the impulse pathways they’re supposed to support. This causes the effects of post-concussion syndrome, and can have long term effects on cognitive function. These proteins are the link between concussion and conditions such as ganglioglioma, Pick’s disease, and chronic traumatic encephalopathy.
Now a new scanning technique has found these proteins in the brains of former football players with chronic traumatic encephalopathy. Because of the nature of the game, brain injuries are all too common among NFL players, but previously the tau buildup was only detectable in an autopsy; this is the first time it has been seen in a living patient. This means that diagnosing and even predicting chronic traumatic encephalopathy can be done more easily. By looking for tau proteins in the brain, neurologists and sports-medicine practitioners will be able to find the effects of trauma as they develop, before any symptoms appear, and take appropriate preventative measures; or start treatment in time to slow or even halt cognitive decline.
Chronic traumatic encephalopathy is often found in boxers, football players, and other athletes who see a lot of violent trauma in their careers. Soldiers are also prone to the condition after concussive blasts in combat situations. It is one of a number of conditions called tauopathies, a category that includes Alzheimer’s disease as well as other forms of dementia. Symptoms of chronic traumatic encephalopathy include disorientation, confusion, slowed movement, staggered gait, slurred speech, and poor judgement, made worse by a deficiency in insight that makes it difficult for the patient to recognize what’s happening. Treatment protocols are focused on using medication to reduce the number of tau proteins to normal levels.