Super Bowl season is upon us, and every year more and more focus this time of year gets placed on a brain disease known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). It is a disease similar to Alzheimer’s symptomatically, but is caused by repeated concussive and sub-concussive head trauma. The movie Concussion, released late 2015, is based on the doctor who discovered the disease, Dr. Bennet Omalu and his struggle to publicize the condition in the face of opposition and stonewalling from the National Football League.
That the NFL would fight against the legitimacy of CTE as a bona fide diagnosis is unfortunate but understandable. A league fighting for its future with declining ratings should be expected to look at such accusations with suspicion. Nonetheless, it does seem indisputable that CTE is a serious football-related illness with grave consequences for sufferers and their families. Suicides and even more horrific murder-suicides committed by professional football players with confirmed CTE brain damage have occurred as recently as 2012.
The good news is that following years of fighting between the medical community and the NFL, both sides seem to be cooperating more readily on the issue as the reality of CTE becomes more known and accepted. Some minor advances have been made towards prevention, one of them being a simple U-shaped mechanism like a small airplane pillow that lightly clamps the jugular vein to gently slow blood flow out of the brain, giving brain tissue a tighter blood cushion against impact. Research has also been done on cannabis, showing that cannabinoids have neuroprotective properties that can help repair brain damage after a head injury or impact. The NFL has been considering changing its policy against medical cannabis in light of this new research.
But the main problem with the disease is that it cannot be diagnosed during life, making it virtually impossible to treat, as well as a source of nagging contention between the NFL and the medical community. CTE can only be diagnosed retroactively post-mortem, which admittedly is not very helpful for patients.
This year may change all that, with diagnostic firm Exosome Sciences, a subsidiary of Aethlon Medical, Inc. (NASDAQ:AEMD) planning a 200-patient clinical trial to begin next quarter testing former NFL players for a blood marker called plasma exosomal tau, a stable blood byproduct of brain scar tissue generated in CTE. At a planned enrollment of 200 players, it aims to be the largest clinical trial of NFL players ever conducted.
In an earlier study, 78 former NFL players were examined for this biomarker against a control group of 16 athletes of non-contact sports. What Aethlon and Exosome found ultimately was that plasma exosomal tau levels correlated with performance on memory and psychomotor tests, and that levels of this biomarker were 9 times higher in the NFL group versus the control group. Results were published in 2016 in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease.
Can Early CTE Diagnosis Lead to Early Alzheimer’s Diagnosis?
The implications of an accurate CTE diagnosis, financially speaking, may not be a game-changer, but the effects of one could be. If the same biomarker can also be used to diagnose other central nervous system diseases involving tau protein aggregation in the brain like Alzheimer’s, then Aethlon could be on to something much bigger than CTE. Aethlon believes that exosomal tau levels can also tip doctors off to early Alzheimer’s Disease and other similar CNS diseases as well, allowing for treatment at much earlier stages. There is reason to believe that the same biomarker is present at higher levels in Alzheimer’s sufferers because it is a byproduct of the same tau protein that builds up in the brain in both conditions.
There is, however, a direct financial implication to an accurate blood-based CTE test, and that involves settlements with the NFL. Since the disease can now only be diagnosed post-mortem, it can’t be included in damage suits against the league. Judge Anita Brody, presiding over a previous CTE class action lawsuit, opined that she could not knowingly incentivize suicide so that family members can collect CTE damages.
At the very least, a successful blood test should help settle what is left of the dispute between the NFL and the medical community, and provide affected players with earlier treatment options. With Hollywood already spreading the word, Super Bowl week just ahead, and the NFL quietly reevaluating its medical cannabis policy in light of this, plenty of attention will be given to CTE and this trial in the weeks and months ahead.
A Personal Connection
Aethlon’s CEO Jim Joyce also happens to have a personal connection to CTE. A former NFL player himself for the Denver Broncos in the mid 1980’s, he played in the 1984 divisional playoffs against two of those first diagnosed with the disease. One of these players, defensive guard Terry Long , committed suicide in 2005. Mike Webster, starting center for the Pittsburgh Steelers who played alongside Long, died in 2002 and was the first ever to be diagnosed with CTE by Dr. Omalu. Joyce also had a former teammate, Tom McHale, die at 45 from a drug overdose, diagnosed with CTE postmortem, whose widow now works at the Boston University CTE Center.