7 Facts from Cerebrum About CTE

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Here’s a scary statistic for you: 96% of deceased NFL football players tested positive for CTE. But CTE is not just an NFL problem. It also extends to other contact sports, most notably boxing. So, what exactly is CTE and should you be concerned? Let’s look at the facts.

What is CTE?

CTE, which stands for Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, is a progressive degenerative brain disease brought on by repeated trauma to the brain, namely through concussions.

CTE is also known as being “punch drunk” because it was initially associated with boxing. Doctors have observed the effects of this brain disease since the 1920s. However, no one recognized that athletes from other sports outside of boxing could also show “punch drunk” symptoms.

That is until Dr. Bennet Omalu, a neuropathologist, discovered that NFL football players also exhibited symptoms in line with being punch drunk. He researched Mike Webster, a deceased NFL football, to confirm that CTE affects professional football players and other athletes who’ve experienced repetitive brain trauma.

CTE is a progressive degeneration of brain tissue. It’s also marked by a build-up of the protein tau.

#1: CTE is caused by repetitive injury to the brain.

The most common type of brain injury is a concussion.

There are between two to four million concussions reported annually, although it’s important to note that the real number is likely much higher. It’s estimated that only half of concussion-related injuries are reported. The reason why is two-fold:

First, there’s still a lot of misinformation about this mild brain injury. Many people believe that the telltale sign of a concussion is the loss of consciousness. However, most concussions do not result in black out. But even without a loss of consciousness, the brain can still be injured. And although the brain can recover, the occurrence of one injury makes the brain more vulnerable to repeated injury.

The second reason why concussions aren’t always reported has to do with stigma. The athlete doesn’t want to get pulled from the game, so he or she may convince themselves and their doctors that no injury has occurred. However, as athletes start to learn about the dangerous consequences of brain injury, there has been a rise in reported concussions. In fact, in the three year period between 2009 and 2012, the amount of concussions reported each week in the NFL increased by 67%.

#2: CTE is not found in just NFL players.

CTE is tied to sports-related brain injuries. It is a relatively new name for a disease that dates back to the early 1920s.

It was first observed in boxing, and those who displayed symptoms of brain injury were known as “punch drunk”.

CTE can affect those who play cricket, ice hockey, major league baseball, mixed martial arts, professional wrestling, rugby, soccer, and other contact sports. Extreme sports, where head injury is common, can also put at athlete at increased risk of developing CTE.

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#3: CTE is difficult to diagnose.

Because CTE is still somewhat of a new (and controversial) diagnosis, research is still in its infancy.

In 2013, UCLA conducted a pilot study of brain tau in retired NFL football players. They performed PET scans of the brain after injecting a chemical marker known as FDDNP intravenously. Because FDDNP binds to the tau protein, this helped researchers determine if the level of tau deposits in the brain. In the study, there were higher levels of FDDNP in the case group of retired NFL players when compared with a control group.

CTE cannot be properly diagnosed until after death. This is when the brain can be examined for the presence of tau. At this time, there isn’t a way to use CT, MRI, or other brain imaging methods to diagnose CTE on living patients.

#4: CTE symptoms don’t exhibit immediately.

The symptoms associated with CTE usually show up around ten years after repetitive brain injury. There are four stages of CTE.

The first stage of CTE can be headaches, dizziness, inattention and trouble with concentration.

The second stage of CTE includes aggressive behavior, depression, and short-term memory loss.

Over time, the brain progressively deteriorates into noticeable personality changes and emotional instability. This is the third stage of CTE. The person with CTE in this stage may show a lack of good judgment and impulse control. He or she may participate in dangerous or risky behaviors, such as excessive gambling and drinking. At this stage, many CTE sufferers often grapple with deep depression and sociality. Ultimately, they often resort to suicide.

Eventually, CTE enters into the fourth stage; which includes severe dementia, slurred speech, body tremors, and vertigo.

CTE doesn’t progress at the same rate. The progression of CTE may be connected to the amount of repetitive brain injury sustained over the lifetime of one’s career.

#5: CTE is often paired with other neurodegenerative diseases.

One out of three cases of CTE also has additional degenerative brain diseases; including Lewy body dementia (16%), Motor neuron disease (12%), Alzheimer’s disease (11%), and Frontotemporal lobar degeneration (6%).

In a 2012 study, the risk of death from degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and ALS was up to four times higher for NFL football players than the general population.

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#6: There is no cure for CTE.

For now, there is no cure for CTE. Although you can seek help for the individual symptoms of CTE, such as depression, there isn’t a way to stop or reverse brain degeneration yet.

#7: CTE may be the most common and dangerous injury for NFL players.

There’s still a lot of research that needs to be done with CTE, which is complicated by the fact that CTE can only be definitively diagnosed post-mortem. However, research on decreased athletes, including professional football players, wrestlers, and others, indicate that CTE may be more prevalent than once thought.

Because its symptoms aren’t exhibited until years or even decades after experiencing a brain injury, CTE is often confused with Alzheimer’s or other neurodegenerative diseases. However, the unprecedented amount of CTE cases confirmed post-mortem demand the need for more research into concussion and concussion prevention.

Additional Resources

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