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Health Watch: Impact of Sports Concussions

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A new study is looking into the effects of sports-related concussions and mild traumatic brain injuries in former professional football players.

For the first time, researchers at UCLA have been able to identify the abnormal proteins in the brains of players while they are still alive. 

Former San Diego Chargers quarterback Wayne Clark took his share of hits during his NFL career in the 70s. "The concussion gave me amnesia for a while. A couple years later, I had another minor concussion," Clark explains. 

Now 65 years old, Clark took part in a study that looked at retired football players and mild traumatic brain injuries. 

Researchers at UCLA developed a brain imaging tool to identify abnormal proteins, known at tau proteins, that are associated with chronic traumatic encephalopathy or CTE. 

"It occurs in professional athletes and one sees impairment in memory, sometimes dementia, sometimes behavioral problems, depression or suicidal behavior," Dr. Gary Small a professor of Aging at UCLA's Parlow-Solomon explains. 

Until now, a diagnosis of CTE could only be made during an autopsy. The UCLA scans are the first to identify the tau protein while the players are still alive. 

"It was exciting when we looked at the scans to see that the pattern in the brain matched the pattern at autopsy" Dr. Small said. 

Clark's pet scan showed high level of the tau protein in his brain. Right now, he has age appropriate memory loss. Both he and researchers hope these findings will lead to treatment of CTE in its early stages "Find out how we can address this problem in living people as opposed to waiting until we're dead," Clark said. Clark hopes the research helps not only him, but other players who suffer head injuries.

Written by Wendy Damonte

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