Concussion related brain disease seen in a 25-year-old former college football player

Concussions have become an epidemic of sorts with nearly 4 million concussions occurring in 2012 and 1 in 5 high school athletes suffering a concussion during their sport season. Typically thought of as a bruise on the brain, a concussion occurs when there is a sudden and direct blow to the head causing the brain to jostle and slam into the skull. This results in damage to the blood vessels and nerves in your brain. The symptoms of a concussion can be tricky to identify and may not present themselves for days. Symptoms can include:

  • Confusion
  • Headache
  • Dizziness
  • Blurred vision
  • Behaviour and personality changes
  • Memory loss

It was originally thought that unless a concussion was severe it would resolve itself with no lasting consequences. However, recent work has identified that repeated blows to the head, even mild ones that may not result in a concussion, can have devastating consequences on the brain in the form of a disease called CTE (chronic traumatic encephalophathy). To date, CTE has been found in athletes from numerous sports including: football, soccer, ice hockey, wrestling, and boxing. CTE destroys the brain tissue (see below) and is the likely culprit for the depression, mood swings, and changes in personality that are seen in people who have suffered a lifetime of concussions. This type of disease as formerly known as ‘punch-drunk’ in boxers from the 1930’s.

CTE brain

Credit: Boston University.

Up until recently, most of us probably thought that CTE only affected people who had been subjected to numerous blows to the head throughout a lifetime of professional sports. However, a recent report in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) Neurology has identified signs of this terrible condition in someone as young as 25. The male in the report had agreed to donate his brain following his death to help understand the link between concussions and CTE. Reading these quotes directly from the report you can see the young mans struggle with concussions and his eventual fall into disease:

  • “He experienced more than 10 concussions, all while playing football, the first occurring at age 8 years”

  • “freshman year of college, he had a concussion with momentary loss of consciousness followed by ongoing headaches, neck pain, blurry vision, tinnitus, insomnia, anxiety, and difficulty with memory and concentration.”

  • “He stopped playing football at the beginning of his junior season owing to ongoing symptoms.”

  • “began failing courses despite having earned above-average grades in high school (3.8 GPA) and earlier in college. He left school with a GPA of 1.9, 12 credits short of earning his bachelor degree.”

After college, this young man had difficulty maintaining a job, his demeanour changed and he became both physically and verbally abusive towards his wife, and he had daily feelings of apathy, worthlessness, and suicidal thoughts in addition to a loss of appetite. Having passed away at the age of 25 from a heart condition, this mans brain was studied and it was found to have many of the characteristic features of CTE.

Evidence of CTE in someone so young raises some serious questions that need to be answered. If the disease is seen in someone so young, then do concussion prevention strategies in professional leagues like the NFL, CFL, and NHL really help or is it too late? Do we need to intervene earlier? How many concussions does it take before traumatic damage to the brain begins to happen? Currently CTE can only be diagnosed with an autopsy so can we develop a test for someone who is still living? How do we treat it? Better yet, how do we prevent it?

96% of all NFL players and 79% of all football players in one study were identified to have CTE. This is becoming a huge problem and we need a solution now. Banning these contact sports would work but is overkill. Teaching safe tackling at a younger age is a start as is teaching young hockey players safe checking. It’s a start, but we have a long way to go to make our kids and sports safer.

Header Photo Credit: John Martinez Pavliga

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