Former San Diego Chargers quarterback Wayne Clark took his share of hits during his NFL career in the 1970s.
"The concussion gave me an amnesia for a while," he said. "A couple of years later... I had another minor concussion. I was unable to recall any plays or anything."
Now 65, Clark took part in a study that looked at retired football players and mild traumatic brain injuries. Researchers at UCLA developed a brain imaging tool to identify abnormal proteins, known as tau proteins, that are associated with chronic traumatic encephalopathy or CTE.
"It occurs in professional athletes and one sees impairment in memory, sometimes dementia, sometimes behavioral problems, depression, suicidal behavior," said Dr. Gary Small, UCLA's Parlow-Solomon professor on aging and the lead study author.
Until now, a diagnosis of CTE could only be made during an autopsy. The UCLA scans are the first to identify the tau protein while the players are alive.
"It was exciting when we looked at the scans to see that the pattern in the brain matched the pattern at autopsy," Small said.
Clark's PET scan showed high levels of the tau protein in his brain. Right now, he has age-appropriate memory loss. Both he and researchers hope the findings will lead to treatment of CTE in its early stages.
"We will be able to get an earlier diagnosis and we'll help find ways to intervene and eventually find out how we can address this problem in living people as opposed to waiting until we're dead," Clark said.
Clark hopes the research not only helps him, but other players who suffer head injuries.
Researchers warn the findings are very preliminary and larger studies need to be done. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than one million Americans suffer a mild traumatic brain injury occur each year.
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