Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) is a growing problem in football players

Concussions in football have been a problem for as long as the sport has existed but data on the number of concussions has only existed since 1995. In 12 years from 1996 to 2007 there were on average 0.4 concussions per game in the NFL or around 102 concussions per season. The concussion problem exists at all levels of the sport and recently has been linked to the development of a severe brain disease called Chronic traumatic encephalopathy or CTE. CTE is a degenerative disease that causes loss of brain tissue due to repeated blows to the head and repeated concussions. Originally called ‘punch-drunk’ due to its association with boxers, CTE is characterized by attention deficits, memory loss, poor judgment, social instability, dementia, speech impediments, and suicidal thoughts. CTE currently can only be diagnosed definitively upon autopsy although tests are in development to detect it in a living person. It has been difficult to understand the magnitude of the CTE epidemic in football due to the difficulty in detecting it until after death. Recently, a team of researchers from Boston sought to get a idea of how big the problem is by looking for CTE in the brains of deceased former football players.

Chronic_Traumatic_Encephalopathy

Image of brain afflicted with advanced CTE (Left) By Boston University Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy 

In this study, the brains of former football players that had been donated for science were analyzed for signs of CTE. This group had a total of 202 deceased players including: 2 from pre-high school, 14 from high school, 53 college players, 14 semi-professional players, 8 from the Canadian Football league, and 111 from the NFL. 87% of all former football players were seen to have CTE pathology including 99% of former NFL players (110 out of 111). 7 of the 8 CFL players had CTE, 48 of 53 college players, and 3 of 14 high school players. There was also a strong correlation between severity of CTE and duration of playing career. Of the former players with mild CTE, 96% of them had behavioural or mood based symptoms, 85% had cognitive symptoms, and 33% had signs of dementia. In the participants with severe CTE 89% had behavioural or mood symptoms, 95% had cognitive symptoms, and 85% had signs of dementia.

This study highlights the extreme problem the sport of football is facing. Many of the individuals who have CTE suffer long after their playing careers and may develop depression, get into violent incidents, commit suicide, or have long term disabilities with day to day life. There is no easy answer to the concussion problem in the NFL but many players are not taking the risk of CTE into consideration when determining if they want to keep playing. This data still does not provide an accurate measure of the prevalence of CTE in the football player population because it may have been biased in the sense that players may have donated their brains if they suspected they had CTE. This would inflate the apparent number of cases of the disease. Still, 99% of the brains from former NFL players had signs of CTE, that is a huge number and is a frightening epidemic in America’s favourite sport.

Image Credit: Keith Allison Flickr

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