Pro Athlete Study to Assess Early Onset Dementia, Potential CTE

Published January 9, 2014

A new, multidisciplinary study based in the University at Buffalo’s Concussion Management Clinic aims to assess former professional athletes for concussion-related health issues and help them maintain quality of life as they age.

“The athletes want us to help them understand what could happen to them as a result of their participation in professional sports and what kind of help we could provide.”
Barry S. Willer, PhD
Professor of psychiatry

The Healthy Aging Mind Project focuses on evaluating former contact sport athletes for early onset dementia and the potential for chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) while they are still alive.

Until now, CTE, a degenerative disease, has only been definitively diagnosed postmortem.

Study Assesses Physical State, Mental Health, Lifestyle

Participants will undergo comprehensive tests, including brain imaging analysis through advanced magnetic resonance imaging, as well as lifestyle assessments of their nutrition and exercise habits and sleep patterns, for example.

The researchers will evaluate participants’ physical health and behavior, including mental health and addictive behaviors. They also will assess cognition, including memory and executive function.

So far, about a dozen former players have been evaluated. The researchers hope to recruit more athletes along with healthy controls, for a total of 60 participants.

They will begin analyzing the brain scans after all imaging has been completed.

“No one expects the diagnosis of CTE to be simple and 100 percent conclusive,” says co-investigator Barry S. Willer, PhD, professor of psychiatry, who is collaborating with John Leddy, MD, clinical associate professor of orthopaedics. “We all know it will involve degrees of difference between normal and abnormal.”

Building on Boston Researchers’ Seminal Finding

An important impetus was to build on a seminal Boston University (BU) study which found CTE in autopsies of former NFL athletes who played certain positions believed to increase the risk for CTE, Willer notes.

“The Boston researchers are sharing their imaging protocol with us because they want to be able to compare findings over the long run,” he explains.

The UB study, however, goes beyond research, incorporating a strong service component designed to provide education, assistance and treatment for participants and their families.

Project Provides Assistance, Education, Treatment

Based on the desires of the athletes themselves, the UB researchers expanded the BU protocol, in part by adding more in-depth investigation into lifestyle choices that may impinge on healthy aging.

“The athletes don’t just want to be guinea pigs,” Willer says. “They want us to help them understand what could happen to them as a result of their participation in professional sports and what kind of help we could provide,” he says.

Therefore, the researchers will share resources and offer referrals for interventions to help participants and their families maintain healthy choices and deal with any diagnoses established.

Participants Include National Hockey League Players

The UB study may be unique in the United States in that it is open to any former professional athlete who played a contact sport.

In addition to football players, it includes former National Hockey League players subjected to repeated concussions, and, therefore, at risk for CTE, says Willer. 

“The larger and more diverse the sample is, the better,” Willer explains.

Collaborative Effort among UB Schools, Departments

Other UB co-investigators include:

Funded by Wilson Foundation, NFL Charities, Others

The UB study is funded primarily by the Ralph C. Wilson Foundation Team Physician Fund. 

Additional funding comes from the NFL Charities, the Robert Rich Family Foundation, the Buffalo Sabres Foundation and the Program for Understanding Childhood Concussions and Stroke, founded by Elad Levy, MD, professor and chair of neurosurgery.