- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 16, 2017

For the first time, doctors have accurately diagnosed severe brain damage in a living former NFL player, opening new avenues for detecting and treating chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative disorder caused by multiple concussions.

“This is a major milestone,” said lead researcher Dr. Bennet Omalu, the Nigerian-born pathologist who discovered the first case of CTE in a former NFL player in 2005.

In 2012, former Minnesota Vikings linebacker Fred McNeill participated in Dr. Omalu’s study, in which he was injected with the experimental drug FDDNP and then had his brain scanned. CTE was diagnosed in the scans but could only be confirmed in an autopsy after his death. While not named in the study, McNeill’s family confirmed his identity to the Chicago Tribune.

McNeill died in 2015. A postmortem examination of his brain confirmed the researchers’ findings in his living scans.

“The comparison is validating that FDDNP is doing what we believe it should be doing in the brain,” Dr. Omalu told The Washington Times. “So this is now encouraging us to take it to the next level, which is the clinical phase trial. This is not an end; this is just a milestone.”

Previously, CTE had been detected only after a subject’s death via brain dissection. A study earlier this year by the CTE Center at Boston University showed that 110 of 111 deceased former NFL players had CTE.

Dr. Omalu developed the drug FDDNP to bind to the tau protein, a marker of the brain disorder. Repeated head trauma causes tau buildup in the brain, which clogs neural pathways and can cause a host of symptoms including memory loss, headaches, personality changes, mood swings, depression and suicidal thoughts.

Finding a way to diagnose the disorder in living patients could help prevent some of its more severe symptoms and physical deterioration.

“If there’s ever a treatment developed, you can test the response to it,” Dr. Julian Bailes, one of the co-authors of the study, 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.”

Dr. Bailes is a neurosurgeon at the NorthShore University HealthSystem in Evanston, Illinois.

Before McNeill died at age 63, he was in such poor health that he had to be transferred to a nursing home. He was unable to feed or dress himself, and he exhibited severe muscle weakness, incontinence, slurred speech and failure to thrive, the study notes.

McNeill had played football for a total of 22 years by the time he left the NFL in 1985. Focused on life after athletics, he enrolled in law school and within a few years was made a partner at a firm in Minneapolis.

But things started to take a turn for the worse in his early 40s. His family noticed a change in his mood; he suffered from headaches, was forgetting things and had difficulty concentrating. He was fired from his law firm for “poor performance,” a scenario that repeated in the few jobs he had afterward.

He filed for bankruptcy. He and his wife separated.

At the insistence of his wife, McNeill enrolled in Dr. Omalu’s trial. At age 59, he underwent the experimental scan to try to determine if he had CTE.

Dr. Omalu couldn’t share the results with McNeill because of the nature of the experiment. When McNeill died, his family donated his brain to Dr. Omalu’s research.

“He had, I would say, moderately advanced changes, but it was distinctive,” Dr. Omalu said of the results of McNeill’s initial scans. “And as expected, when he died three years later, it was advanced.”

The study was published last week in the journal Neurosurgery*.

Dr. Omalu said the results will help researchers move on to phase three of the clinical trials to better develop their diagnosing technique.

“We would need funding of about $5 million — and if we get the money it will take about two to three years to finally apply to the FDA for approval to diagnose it,” he said.

* Correction: Dr. Bennet Omalu’s study was published in the journal Neurosurgery and not Neurology as stated in the original version of this article. The article has been updated with the correct information.

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