Earlier this year, a new diagnostic test from UCLA researchers discovered that several living former NFL players showed signs of CTE (Chronic Traumautic Encephalopathy), the degenerative brain disease linked to repeated head trauma that can lead to early dementia and depression. But scientists told The New York Times today that they aren't at all sold on that test's validity.
In the UCLA researchers' test, an injected compound purports to stick to proteins in the brain, which can then be analyzed on PET scan. At the time, that finding of CTE in retired NFL players was startling, as the disease had only been firmly diagnosed posthumously in brain autopsies of deceased players. Add in the big names diagnosed — such as former NFL Hall of Fame star running back Tony Dorsett — and the story had easily accessible legs.
The study did have its questioners at the time, including Deadspin's medical writer Matt McCarthy, who noted that the UCLA test only looked at eight — now up to nine — total people. "[W]e don't yet have enough information to determine how good the test is," McCarthy explained last month. Since then, other scientists have joined in with those doubts. “I can see getting awareness and publicity, but this sounds like putting the cart before the horse,” Dr. John Morris, a neurology professor at Washington University School of Medicine, told the Times. Given that the experimental test is "perhaps years from gaining federal approval," as the Times explains, it's too early for definite diagnoses.
Even the early discoverers of CTE are expressing some skepticism, especially of the test's impacts on those who take it. “My fear is the people out there who are so much in need, scared for their lives and desperate for information, it might give them false hope,” said Robert Stern, the founder of the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy. False hope, maybe, but the tests are more likely to create possibly unfounded fears of coming dementia and depression.
That's not to say that the UCLA researchers' test is under attack, but to argue that it's simply too early to judge the test's accuracy. And the media reports that Dorsett was "diagnosed" with CTE are not wholly founded in definitively researched science. Awareness and worry about CTE and its effects have been on the rise this year, particularly after PBS' Frontline's exposé into the NFL's denial of concussions for many years. Still, the science behind the concussion crisis comes along much slower than the public understanding of the issue.