Researchers have found widespread brain disease in dead NFL players. New figures from the Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) Center in Boston — the country’s largest brain bank focused on studying traumatic brain injury — revealed that 96% of nearly 100 players examined tested positive for CTE.

Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy is a progressive degenerative brain disease seen in athletes with repetitive brain trauma. People who suffer from CTE experience memory loss, dementia, and depression. They may have difficulty with decision-making or producing appropriate emotional responses in different situations. Injuries that produce CTE stimulate an abnormal buildup of the Tau protein in the brain — the same protein implicated in Alzheimer’s Disease. When Tau accumulates in the brain, it spills out of cells and causes escalating damage to neural pathways.

It’s not just professional players who are at risk. The Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy lab has found CTE in 79% of all football players they’ve examined, including high school players as well as college and professional footballers. Dr. Ann McKee, the facility’s director and Chief of Neuropathology at the VA Boston Healthcare System, comments: “People think that we’re blowing this out of proportion, that this is a very rare disease and that we’re sensationalizing it. Where I sit, this is a very real disease. We have had no problem identifying it in hundreds of players.”

Injuries that produce CTE stimulate an abnormal buildup of the Tau protein in the brain– the same protein implicated in Alzheimer’s Disease.

Studies have shown that the largest threat to the players comes from repeated minor hits to the head — known as “micro traumas” — rather than violent collisions that produce concussions. 40% of the football players who had CTE had played as offensive and defensive linemen, putting themselves at risk because they were in positions that underwent physical contact in every play of the game.

An early study by Dr. Gary W. Small et al. from the UCLA Brain Institute found that mild traumatic brain injury from contact sports was associated with chronic mood and cognitive disturbances. This group detected higher PET scan signals in all subcortical regions and the amygdala, areas that produce tau deposits following trauma, in retired living NFL players with histories of mood and cognitive symptoms compared with matched controls.

Chronic_Traumatic_EncephalopathyCognitive psychologist researcher Jeremy F. Strain from Washington University in St. Louis recently published his finding that retired NFL players who had a history of concussions had increased risk for brain shrinkage and memory problems.

Unfortunatley, CTE cannot be diagnosed definitively during life. It requires a pathology report of frontal and temporal lobe atrophy, which can only be obtained postmortem. Many of the former football players who donated their brains to science had concerns over their brain function, leading to potential selection bias. Since they suspected that they may have had CTE while they were alive, this may potentially yield higher false positive results since the researchers are studying a skewed population of subjects.

The NFL released a statement to Frontline in response to Dr. Mckee’s CTE figures: “We are dedicated to making football safer and [will] continue to take steps to protect players, including rule changes, advanced sideline technology, and expanded medical resources. We continue to make significant investments in independent research through our gifts to Boston University, the NIH, and other efforts to accelerate the science and understanding of these issues.”Screen Shot 2015-10-16 at 8.55.36 AM

Players now have to undergo pregame medical assessments as well as post-game evaluations. Additionally, the kickoff has been moved five yards forward to reduce the number of kick returns. The NFL reports a 40% reduction in helmet-to-helmet hits and a 25% reduction in concussions over the past three years.

Yet the threat of micro traumas looms over us. Princeton football players might be receiving repeated minor blows to the head; they may be experiencing accumulative small traumas daily without realizing it, paving the way to future medical problems. Furthermore, CTE may not just be limited to athletes. Similar cases have been reported in former military members, autistic children who rock and bang their head, abuse victims, and people with seizure disorders.

The NFL released a statement to Frontline in response to Dr. Mckee’s CTE figures: “We are dedicated to making football safer…”

Head bumps are common occurrences, not just in sports. They can come from falls, unintentional blunt trauma, or motor vehicle accidents. Traumatic brain injury, which includes both penetrating head injury and closed head injury, is the most common cause of brain damage in children and young adults. In the United States alone, 138 people die every day from injuries that include TBI.

The insidious harm of micro trauma is especially frightening: we may be injuring ourselves and not know until it is too late.

About The Author