Western University researchers are finding a link between athletes with severe concussions and patients living with ALS — a degenerative neurological disorder.

People living with Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy have likely experienced repeated head trauma. Many patients are often athletes who play contact sports such as football and hockey. ALS, or Lou Gehrig's disease, affects the brain and spinal cord.

Lead researcher Dr. Michael Strong said studies have found a similar protein — called tau — in both disorders.

"[They] are neurons that would be important for memory, cognition, speech, and language," he said.

"Any time you can find a parallel between two illnesses that are producing the same end result. You now have twice as much power to understand it because you have different ways of coming at it and different types of setting it up within the cell," he said.

Next steps

Michael Strong

Neurons showing tau protein in CTE-ALS models. (Submitted by Western University )

Western scientists at the Robarts Research Institute worked with a team for six years from the Concussion Legacy Foundation Brain Bank of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs at Boston University.  

The research, which was done in human and animal brains, will now help scientists determine what triggers change in the brain and types of drugs can be used to treat both disorders.

The findings were first presented in the summer as part of the See the Line conference. It's a 10-year project to educate athletes, coaches and parents about concussions.