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World first study to recruit former athletes to diagnose concussion related disease

4 March 2019

In an Australian-first study, Austin Health lead researcher Professor Christopher Rowe is aiming to find out whether repeated blows to the head are linked to controversial degenerative brain diseases.

By mapping the brains of retired athletes and war veterans, the $1 million funded study is working to develop a world-first test that can diagnose concussion related disease in living people by using new technology to sensitively measure the unique pattern of toxic proteins in the brain.

The study is looking to recruit middle-aged former athletes, and Professor Rowe says it's not known how common the chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) condition is, or who is at risk.

The neurodegenerative disease is associated with personality changes and memory problems, but a definitive diagnosis can only be made by analysing a brain post-mortem. However, Professor Row is using a new radioactive chemical which is injected into patients going into a brain scan to find abnormal clumps of the protein ‘tau.'

Tau can spread and kill brain cells, and Professor Rowe's laboratory is just the second in the world to use the ‘tau' PET scan.

"When you look at the brain under the microscope, the pattern is quite different in this CTE condition, to what you see in Alzheimer's disease," Professor Rowe said.

"We now have a brain scan which can show us these ‘tau' clumps. The first step now is to see if the scan is sensitive enough to pick up the condition."

The National Health and Medical Research Council funded study will scan the brains of 75 former athletes and war veterans aged 40 to 80 who've had concussions.

Participants in their 50's with CTE-like symptoms are urged to take part. Professional Boxing and Combat Sports Victoria chair Simone Bailey says former fighters were signing up for the study.

"Research is important so you can make informed decisions about whether you want to take part based on the risks, and we can find ways to make the sport safer," she said.

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