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New Canadian study could be a lifesaver for thousands suffering from CTE

A first-of-its-kind Canadian research study is working towards a major medical breakthrough for a brain disorder, believed to be caused by repeated head injuries, that can only be detected after death.

Inside the brain imaging centre at Toronto’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), Scientific Director Neil Vasdev is hopeful that his team is on the cusp of being able to diagnose chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in a living person.

Speaking with CTV National News, Vasdev shares that, “If we can detect CTE in life then we can start working towards stopping the disease in its tracks.” That would be a game-changer for untold thousands across the world.

The disorder has increasingly been found in the brains of deceased athletes like football and hockey players, and more recently it has been discovered in military veterans.

Researchers have found that people with a history of substantial repetitive head impacts (RHI), can experience a buildup of a type of protein around the blood vessels called “tau.” A different strain of tau is also found in Alzheimer’s patients.

A concentration of the CTE-specific tau protein can have life-altering cognitive effects on the living by impacting their cognitive ability, which can lead to depression and even suicidal tendencies.

A look at the living brain

Currently, doctors are unable to diagnose CTE in a living patient, though Vasdev and his team of Canadian scientists at CAMH are hoping to change that.

Their work focuses on taking a drug and making it radioactive. Known as a tracer, the radioactive drug is injected into a patient who’s then placed inside what’s called a PET imaging scanner. As the drug travels through an area of the body, doctors can then detect any red flags.

Simply put, using PET imaging and radioactive drugs, doctors can “look at the living human brain,” Vasdev explains.

Vasdev’s hope lies in a new radio-pharmaceutical, that has been optimized to potentially detect the type of tau protein found in CTE, and in the weeks ahead his team will begin a Canadian research study on humans to test its effectiveness.

For many fighting on the front lines of this brain disorder, it’s a positive step. International Research Director Samantha Bureau with the Concussion Legacy Foundation tells CTV News that “for those suffering from suspected CTE, this study can provide an immense amount of hope. A substantial challenge for those who suspect they may have CTE is the uncertainty around the cause of what they are experiencing.”

The hope is that if successful, this study will open up opportunities for better treatment avenues in the future.

“The ability to engage in clinical trials to develop treatments that alter disease progression, by either slowing, or in best case scenarios, reversing or clearing the disease, would completely change how we address CTE in the clinic,” adds Bureau.

Vasdev’s research into concussions began more than a decade ago when he was working at Harvard University.

He shares his belief that “significant strides have been made for looking at Alzheimer’s disease tau, but CTE tau protein is different because no two head injuries are the same and it’s often found in much younger people.”

For Vasdev, it’s a project of passion. His mother is a Canadian military veteran who enlisted in the 1970s. At the time, she was one of the only East Indian women in the army. She has dedicated her brain to CTE research. Vasdev is hoping his work will help his mother, veterans and Canadians from all walks of life.

Vasdev believes that having the ability to diagnose CTE in life “means we could immediately start working towards prevention strategies, treatment regimens and ultimately stopping the disease.” 

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