You may have heard a lot about CTE recently, especially considering there is an entire Will Smith movie dedicated to the condition. GQ Magazine also wrote several articles profiling the work of Dr. Bennet Omalu, the doctor responsible for making the connection between CTE and football injuries. Dr. Omalu is also the subject of said Will Smith movie. But what exactly is CTE, and how prevalent is it in football players, whether amateur or professional?

CTE defined

CTE stands for chronic traumatic encephalopathy, also known as dementia pugilistic, as it was considered a disease that mainly affected pugilists, or boxers. It is caused by traumatic impact to the head or repeated direct contact to the head. It causes the brain to lose mass in specific areas over time, also known as brain atrophy. While some parts of the brain atrophy, others may swell or enlarge, and release too much of a substance called tau protein that damages the neurons of the brain. The degeneration of the brain is progressive, and often mimics dementia symptoms like those seen in Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease.

CTE and football

It wasn’t until 2016 that an NFL spokesperson publicly acknowledged that there is a link between football and brain damage. The numbers are now undeniable, considering that neuropathologists, like Dr. Ann McKee, have found 90 out of 94 professional players and 45 out of 55 college players show signs of CTE. In April of 2016, a study in the Journal of Neurotrauma reported that even among high school football players, one season of football is enough to cause significant changes in the brain, whether the players suffered a concussion or not.

Another April 2016 article from The Washington Post reported on the findings of the American Academy of Neurology, which states that over 40 percent of retired professional football players have traumatic brain injuries. This study comes on the heels of a Frontline study that shows that chronic CTE, or the kind of CTE only discovered after death, exists in the autopsies of 96 percent of professional football players and 79 percent of all other football players. While concussions do lead to heightened risk, repeated contact to the head is enough to cause concern, according to all current studies.

Symptoms and diagnosis

Common symptoms of CTE include memory loss, erratic behavior, poor judgment, unusual aggression and balance problems. One of the primary reasons CTE went under the radar for so long is that it is similar to dementia and normal aging degeneration. The notable suicide deaths of Chris Benoit and Junior Seau started the conversation about diagnosing the disease before it is too late. Thanks to Dr. Omalu and others, diagnosis of living patients is possible now that they can measure the substance that affects neurons, or tau protein. Tests are underway on professional athletes and military personnel.

While the use of lithium shows some relief of dementia symptoms, there is not a definite treatment plan for CTE sufferers. Exercise, brain teasers and games, strict schedule implementation and a calm environment all help sufferers deal with the mood-altering and memory loss symptoms associated with the disease. As more research is conducted, more options will surface. Contact us, read our blog or search our database for more information about the latest medical discoveries and treatments.