UCLA Study Could Shed Light on CTE in Living Players

January 23, 2013 – 6:40 am by Eric Schmoldt

Researches involved in a pilot study at UCLA believe they’re onto something that will help detect chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE. Previously, the disease has only been detected in deceased former football players, probably most notably in Junior Seau. ESPN’s Mark Fainaru-Wada, who is writing a book on the topic with Steve Fainaru, says the study could be a breakthrough, but it still needs to be proven on a bigger scale as questions continue to mount.

Mark Fainaru-Wada joined ESPN New York with The Michael Kay Show to discuss newly released information from a UCLA study on CTE, the timeline of when this study could start being used on a larger scale, what it would mean for living players who were found to have CTE and what it could mean for the NFL overall.

On the possibility of there being a way to test for CTE in living people:

“This has been one of the real challengers that researchers have faced as they’ve tried to wrap their arms around the issue of CTE … is that so far the only way to diagnose this is in autopsies after players have died. Some of the scientists in the story we wrote have referred to this as the holy grail, the idea that you’d be able to identify CTE in a living player. The study at UCLA, though it’s very preliminary — they only have five subjects — it’s viewed as a major sort of step in that direction. They believe they have the ability, now, to diagnose this in living players. And I think the next step, they say and others say, they now need a bigger group of players and a larger study … but if they can actually nail this down and this holds up, it raises all sorts of questions and further issues.”

When might that become available to players?:

“I think they’re still saying you’re talking about, probably, a couple of years. This study took a year and a half to get through. It requires a decent amount of money. This study cost only about $100,000 … and they got donations from the Brain Injury Research Institute, which has been involved in this study for years. They need a lot more money and a lot more players. Then you have to go through a more extensive process.”

Even if it’s found in players that are alive, can you just make the leap that they’re going to go down a similar path as Junior Seau?:

“I think this is part of the ongoing research, too. I don’t think you can make that leap and nobody’s suggesting you can. There’s no question at this point that scientists are identifying it as a neuro-degenerative disease. They’re saying the combination of time and the longer you’re exposed to it — so the more time you play, the more head trauma you experience — are the two factors that really contribute. I think what you would run into is you’d have a player in his 20s who was tested and identified with having CTE and that would raise all sorts of questions for that player — how much longer do I want to play? Are there treatments to mitigate the kinds of results you might have in extreme cases like Junior Seau?”

Is this a turning point for the NFL?:

“There’s no question, if you look at the way the story has evolved over the course of the last, say, five years … the NFL has obviously been in reactive mode and has really come a long way from the point at which they were denying the science almost entirely to the point now where they’re obviously embracing it. They recently donated $30 million to NIH for research. You have seen plenty of rule changes that have been debated on both sides. … People ask, ‘Is this the death of football?’ I think the idea that the NFL is going to go away is a false premise, that the sport is obviously a huge part of our culture. I think the question that rises for us, as we’re doing the reporting, is you see more and more and hear about the effects at the lower levels among kids. … That’ll be where to watch the evolution of the sport. Are there fewer players feeding into the system? Do losses at the lower levels impact the ability to insure high school players and Pop Warner players?”

Listen to Mark Fainaru-Wada on ESPN Radio New York here

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