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Future Tense

Gienna Shaw, for HealthLeaders Media, February 13, 2011
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Virtual Brain Biopsy

Researchers: Alexander Lin, PhD, a principal investigator at the Center for Clinical Spectroscopy at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, along with researchers from Boston University Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy

Purpose: A specialized imaging technique called magnetic resonance spectroscopy uses a powerful magnetic field and radio waves to extract information about chemical compounds within the body, using a clinical MR scanner. This noninvasive “virtual biopsy” technique is a step toward diagnosing chronic traumatic encephalopathy in athletes.

How it works: Researchers at Harvard University’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital used MRS to measure chemicals in the brains of five retired professional athletes—three NFL players, a boxer, and a wrestler. The imaging found suspicious chemical changes in the brains, including increased levels of, among others, choline, a cell membrane nutrient that signals the presence of damaged tissue. 

Potential improvement: The only test to diagnose their condition is done after death in an autopsy. “MRS may provide us with noninvasive, early detection of CTE before further damage occurs, thus allowing for early intervention,” says Lin. “Being able to diagnose CTE could help athletes of all ages and levels, as well as war veterans who suffer mild brain injuries, many of which go undetected.”

What’s next: Although there is no treatment for CTE, if researchers can prove that chemical changes in the brain are a symptom, then scientists could test drugs that would affect those chemicals with an eye toward slowing or preventing symptoms.

It could also inform policy recommendations from doctor groups about how soon professional and student athletes can return to play after being hit in the head.

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