Earliest stages of CTE impact Tony Dorsett

Former Pitt running back Tony Dorsett has been diagnosed with early signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), according to a report Wednesday from ESPN's "Outside the Lines."

CTE is a degenerative brain disease caused by repeated head trauma and has been linked to depression and dementia. (Check out the PG's series on the disease).

Dorsett, 59, along with former NFL stars Joe DeLamielleure and Leonard Marshall, underwent evaluations at UCLA over the past three months. Brain scans and other evaluations indicated early signs of CTE in all three, researchers told ESPN.

The disease is caused by buildups of tau, a structural protein that can become dislodged during repetitive head trauma and affect brain cells controlling memory and emotions. Autopsies of former NFL players -- including former linebacker Junior Seau, who committed suicide in 2012 -- have shown such buildups.

Two weeks ago, Dorsett told "Outside the Lines" he was experiencing memory loss, depression and thoughts of suicide. These symptoms prompted him to seek testing for CTE.

CTE has no cure, but a January study of five former NFL players showed the first signs of the disease in living humans, which researchers told "Outside the Lines" was a significant step forward.

Dr. Julian Bailes, codirector of the NorthShore Neurological Institute in Evanston, Ill., was one of the neurosurgeons involved in the study. He was not authorized to speak about Dorsett's results specifically, but said identifying early signs of CTE in living individuals was a major step forward.

"I have to stress that we're still a small number, it's preliminary data, but it looks very promising scientifically," Bailes, former Steelers team physician, told the Post-Gazette. "We have no hope of helping anyone and really understanding who gets it and why, and why many people don't get it until we can diagnose it in living people."

Dorsett told "Outside the Lines" he has experienced emotional outbursts with his wife and two daughters, and sometimes has trouble remembering routine tasks and directions.

"It's painful, man, for my daughters to say they're scared of me," Dorsett told "Outside the Lines."

Dorsett even admitted he has contemplated suicide.

"I'm too smart of a person, I like to think, to take my life, but it's crossed my mind," he told the show.

Bailes said the best current treatment for CTE is psychiatric evaluation and care to handle the depression that leads many patients to commit suicide.

"I don't think CTE is a death sentence," he said.

Because CTE is believed to develop from repetitive head trauma, Bailes said the best course of action ultimately will be prevention, rather than treatment.

"Like most things in life that are based on an exposure, whether it's sun burn and skin cancer or lung cancer and cigarette smoking, rather than worry about treating it, we need to work at preventing it from even happening," he said.

"I think we are faced with the immutable fact that we must take repetitive head impact out of the game."

Dorsett grew up in Aliquippa and played for Hopewell High School from 1970-72. He went on to star at Pitt, won the Heisman Trophy and led Pitt to its most recent national championship in 1976. He played for 12 years in the NFL, primarily for the Dallas Cowboys, and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1994.

Dorsett, who lives near Dallas, is expected to return to this weekend to see the Panthers play Notre Dame Saturday at Heinz Field.

Sam Werner: swerner@post-gazette.com and Twitter @SWernerPG.

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