Clinicopathological Evaluation of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy in Players of American Football
A new study in the Journal of the American Medical Association highlighted that CTE or chronic traumatic encephalopathy was diagnosed in nearly 9 of 10 people studied. They studied the brains of former professional and amateur American style football athletes. The results are on par with what everyone has been thinking about the effects of football and other similar sports do to the brain over a long period of time. What does this mean?
Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) is a progressive neurodegeneration associated with repetitive head trauma. In 2013, another study based on a report of the clinical and pathological features of 68 men with CTE met criteria for neuropathological (autopsy study by a physician) diagnosis of CTE. The initial features of CTE developed at a younger age and involved behavioral disturbance, and mood disturbance. It should also be noted that in both studies, most of these people died around the age of 67 years old. This is a pretty young age to die no matter what the cause.
Among 202 deceased former football, CTE was neuropathologically diagnosed in 177 players. These players came from the NFL, Canadian Football league, and even high school. This is a fairly disturbing study, and some athletes abruptly retired, as highlighted in a recent WSJ article. As NFL teams, motocross athletes, X games athletes, soccer athletes, UFC athletes and every sport where impact and concussion are major risks, it has to lie heavy on everyone minds. These sports carry huge risks of broken limbs, joints, and necessary suffering. It is another thing if the result is CTE or brain damage. We can fix the rest of the injuries, brain trauma is not easily fixed.
Shortly after the study was published, John Urschel, a Mathematics doctoral student and offensive lineman for the Baltimore Ravens retired at age 26. The study was reportedly a factor in the sudden decision last week of Baltimore Ravens offensive lineman John Urschel–currently pursuing a doctorate in mathematics at MIT–to retire early from game. Urschel did not mention the JAMA report publicly. NFL players who were open about quitting the league due to the high risk of brain damage include A.J Tarpley (Buffalo) and Chris Borland (San Francisco). Many other athletes have had to leave their sport early due to concussions. In the NHL, players like Mike Richter, Pat Lafontaine; in motocross, Broc Hepler; in X games, Dave Mirra committed suicide; in freestyle skiing Justin Porey; in soccer, Cindy Parlow Cone, and countless other athletes.
We have known about these risks for a long time, and they are finally catching up to high impact sports. After years of denial from the NFL, it is no longer a debate that football carries long-term risk from head injuries. The study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found signs of the progressive neurological disease known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, in 87% of 202 brains donated from deceased high school, college, semi pro and pro football players. The studies stunner was that 110 out of 111 figure–of 111 brains donated by late NFL players, all but one showed signs of CTE.
Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who has suffered concussions in the past, was quoted saying that this study shows that concussions are nothing to mess with. He went on further to say, “If you want to mess with your brain, you can’t put a new one in. You can’t have a brain transplant. If you want to mess with your brain, go ahead. I’m not going to. I love my family and kids.”
We all love football and other high impact sports. But even the most devoted of fans of any impact sport have to stop for a moment and think if this is a good idea. These types of studies will never stop people from playing football or pursuing other high impact sports. The sense of accomplishment, family, ethics, and hard work overcomes the fear of injury and even death. A good analogy is that we all drive cars, yet “we are just fine with over 40,000 people dying in car accidents each year” (astronaut Chris Hadfield). We will still drive our cars everywhere and just as fast. Hopefully, there will be new steps to prevent head injuries in the first place, or at least limit them.
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