By Andrew Gelinas
Dr. Alex Lin is a clinical spectroscopist who works within the Psychiatry Neuroimaging Laboratory at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.
He graduated from the California Institute of Technology with a bachelor’s degree in biology in 2003 and has since completed his master’s in bioengineering in 2006 and his Ph.D. in biochemistry and molecular biophysics. He has also worked as an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School since 2014.
Dr. Lin has worked within the chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) research sphere for the better part of a decade. He has released a number of papers and has also appeared at many talks all over the United States and the world.
He is also a wealth of knowledge on the subject and has taken to teaching younger researchers his methods in both research and experimentation in order to help foster a new generation of thinking about the disease.
The primary misconception regarding CTE
Much of what the general public understands about CTE comes from reports discussing mostly football players. This has caused two issues. The first is that if you were to play football and get concussed at any point, you will get CTE at some point.
While there was a study in the past that found 99 percent of brains taken from former NFL players had traces of CTE, that does not mean that 99 percent of players in the league have the disease. Many of these brains were taken from former players whose families thought they had matched the criteria for it. There are several football players who do not fit the criteria even years after they have retired.
The second misconception is that CTE is not something that is simply flipped on based off a certain number of concussions. There used to be an idea that if scientists were able to detect Tau inside the brain, then they knew the deceased had CTE. However, because new research is completed every week, theories pertaining to the topic are usually amended.
How do researchers enter the CTE field?
Not all CTE researchers enter the field in the same exact way. Some come in order to link the neurological ailment with degenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s, while others enter trying to link it with concussions. Now while neither way is incorrect, this discrepancy can create small difficulties when trying to understand the issue.
Think of CTE research as viewing a distant body in space, like a quasar. Quasars are the brightest persistent object in the known universe, shining a reported 100 times brighter than the entire Milky Way galaxy. Now astronomers later found another celestial body called a blazar, which was later found out to be a quasar but viewed at a totally different angle.
So, think of CTE research as a quasar. Some things in conversation may be lost in translation, causing some short-term issues. There are times that one side may be arguing louder, however, both sides are 100 percent valid and necessary if researchers want to grasp the most complete understanding on CTE possible.
What do we know about Tau?
Tau is a protein inside the brain that has been linked to several degenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. The protein has also been found in most, if not all cases of CTE dating back to when Dr. Bennet Omalu found it in Pittsburgh Steeler Mike Webster’s brain. In some cases, researchers have also uncovered that it has, at times, eaten portions of the organ.
They are generally the first thing that anyone notices when looking at both the inside of a healthy brain next to the inside of a sick brain. Think of this comparison like the one anti-smoking organizations make to distinguish a pair of lungs from someone who didn’t smoke during their life with a pair from someone who did smoke. And while lungs can sometimes eventually repair themselves, to a point, the brain cannot.
But Tau is an overall misunderstood aspect of CTE. It’s usually a term thrown around that doesn’t get explain well enough so that people outside the medical field really get what it is. But researchers don’t exactly understand everything about the protein either, but they’re working to get a better grasp of what it is and how it relates to CTE.
Researchers like Dr. Lin are on the front line between what we know about CTE and what we don’t.
Lin said that while many in the media try to make it sound like researchers are trying to find ways to help spur on football’s death, that is not the case at all. “I’m not here to say your kid shouldn’t play sports. I’m not here to say that sports are a dangerous thing. I’m here to say simply that these are my findings. What you want to do with it is ultimately up to the public.”