Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) found in over 90% of deceased NFL player brains: BU study

A topic TTA extensively covered from 2012 up to end of 2017 was long term brain damage created by repeated concussive, and likely sub-concussive, head impacts, culminating in chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) which can only be diagnosed after death. Your Editor was privileged to attend presentations by researchers from Boston University (BU) and Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München (LMU) in 2013 at NYC’s German Center for Research and Innovation and by BU’s Robert Stern, MD, at NYC’s MedTech in 2014 (indexed here).

In time for the Big Game known as the Super Bowl is the timely release by the Boston University CTE Center of their latest findings, and it will give anyone who plays contact sports caution. 

Out of 376 former National Football League (NFL) players studied, 345 were confirmed to have died with CTE–91.7%. The norm is around 0.6%, and the lone person with it was a former college football player (2018 study by BU of 164 brains of men and women donated to the Framingham Heart Study). CTE is characterized by misfolded tau protein that is unique and unlike changes observed from aging, Alzheimer’s disease, or any other brain disease.

Ironically, former players of teams in this Sunday’s Super Bowl LVII between the Philadelphia Eagles and Kansas City Chiefs were included in this study–former Eagles quarterback Rick Arrington, who played three seasons for the Eagles from 1970-73, and former Chiefs defensive tackle Ed Lothamer, who played for them in the very first Super Bowl and was a member of their winning team in Super Bowl IV.

The CTE Center cautions that the 91% quoted in the study should not be interpreted as a current/past player number, as the brain bank samples are subject to selection bias. The families donate the brains because their loved ones had the personality changes and debility in their final years, often in middle age and younger, that characterize CTE. 

In the past five years, CTE has been increasingly recognized as a risk in contact sports and in repeated concussion. According to the release, “In October 2022, the National Institutes of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), a branch of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), updated their position on what causes CTE: “CTE is a delayed neurodegenerative disorder that was initially identified in postmortem brains and, research-to-date suggests, is caused in part by repeated traumatic brain injuries.” Research is ongoing on whether sub-concussive head trauma, easy to overlook, may be a contributing or causative factor.

There are also five active CTE Center clinical studies designed to learn how to diagnose and treat CTE. Project S.A.V.E. (Study of Axonal and Vascular Effects) is actively recruiting 50+ adults who  played 5+ years of a contact sport, including American football, ice hockey, soccer, lacrosse, boxing, full contact martial arts, rugby and wrestling. BU CTE Center releaseThe Daily Mail has a surprisingly  comprehensive article on the BU research, relatively young former players who killed themselves and others who turned out to have CTE, and (in this Editor’s opinion) the NFL’s limited efforts in providing for research funding, changing play/practice, and for league awareness. 

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