Evidence continues to mount that professional athletes in a number of contact sports are suffering brain damage as a result of head impacts. But there is no reliable test to detect the injury, called chronic traumatic encephalopathy, in its earliest stages.
Even if a doctor strongly suspects that an athlete’s confusion or memory loss is related to C.T.E., proof can only be obtained on autopsy.
Now a small study of National Football League players suggests another possibility: that the signs of C.T.E. may be found with a low-cost, noninvasive test that tracks changes in conversational language years before symptoms appear.
If it works, the linguistic test also would be valuable in assessing the effectiveness of treatments to prevent cognitive damage because of C.T.E. or to slow its progression.
In the study, to be published this week in the journal Brain and Language, researchers at Arizona State University tracked a steeper decline in vocabulary size and other verbal skills in 10 players who spoke at news conferences over an eight-year period, compared with 18 coaches and executives who had never played professional football and who also spoke in news conferences during the same period.
The players included seven quarterbacks, one nose tackle, one cornerback and one wide receiver. Although the small sample size and limited study period prevented reaching definitive conclusions, the findings underscored the need for larger, long-term studies of changes in spoken and written language that could be harbingers of severe brain damage later in life.