By William Weinbaum | ESPN.com
The researchers who say they can determine whether a living person has chronic traumatic encephalopathy said they have been inundated with inquiries from former college and professional football players about possibly undergoing testing.
“Outside the Lines” reported last week that researchers from UCLA and TauMark, a company formed 10 months ago that purchased a license to the brain scan used to test for signs of CTE, said four former NFL stars — including ex-Dallas Cowboys running back Tony Dorsett — had tested positive for signs of CTE.
Since last week, the researchers and the attorney for the players said that well over 100 former players have inquired, as have many parents of youth athletes. TauMark said it is seeking expedited FDA approval for the test.
“We’re not advertising and not commercially open for business,” said Bob Fitzsimmons, a TauMark director who was the attorney for Mike Webster, the Hall of Fame center whose autopsy 11 years ago produced the first diagnosis of CTE. “We’re still in the study phase.”
Nine former NFL players have been tested at UCLA thus far. All nine were diagnosed with signs of CTE, the degenerative condition linked to dementia and depression that some scientists attribute to head trauma.
About a dozen former athletes, of whom all but three played in the NFL, are being considered for the next group of about five people to be tested — perhaps as early as a month from now, said Bill West, an attorney in Louisiana and TauMark director.
As for the inquiries from ex-players since last week, West said: “We’re creating a database, and we should be commercially able to do it [conduct more tests] beginning in the first quarter of 2014.”
The researchers working with UCLA caution that their testing is preliminary. But they deem promising their results thus far, which rely on a medical examination and a neuropsychiatric evaluation in addition to different types of brain scans to reach a conclusion. One of the brain scans is a PET scan that uses a radioactive marker to detect abnormal concentrations of tau, a protein that damages brain cells in areas that control memory, emotions and other functions.
Prior to the UCLA work, tau deposits indicative of CTE were diagnosed posthumously, as was the case in more than 50 deceased NFL players, including Webster and former All-Pro linebacker Junior Seau, who committed suicide last year.
Dr. Julian Bailes, a researcher and director on the TauMark project, estimated the cost of individual testing at $10,000 to $15,000. Fitzsimmons said the UCLA testing has been funded by foundations and charitable donations. That underwriting, said Fitzsimmons, included a $100,000 grant from the Brain Injury Research Institute he leads along with Bailes and Dr. Bennet Omalu, a TauMark director and forensic neuropathologist who first discovered CTE in a football player when he conducted Webster’s autopsy.
In addition to Dorsett, “Outside the Lines” reported that Joe DeLamielleure, Leonard Marshall and Mark Duper were told they had CTE signs. None of the four, according to the players’ attorney and TauMark, received compensation for being tested.
All four of the ex-stars said in recent interviews that they’ve endured memory loss, depression and suicidal thoughts.
Bailes said although virtually every posthumous test, and all of the tests to date among living ex-NFL players, have found indicators of CTE, he doesn’t think this means all or nearly all ex-NFL players have the disease. He said he expects testing in the living to produce answers about this and potential treatments.
Bailes, co-director of the NorthShore Neurological Institute in Evanston, Ill., said he anticipates Evanston Hospital will be the second venue for testing and that others will follow.
“Our goal,” Fitzsimmons said, “is to make it accessible to as many people as possible.”