The Cause of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy
Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) is a degenerative brain condition caused by repeated blows to the head. These impacts do not have to create immediate symptoms for CTE to show up later in life. It was famously discovered in Mike Webster, a former center for the Pittsburgh Steelers, by the forensic neuropathologist Bennet Omalu. It had been associated with boxing and was called dementia pugilistica, or punch drunk syndrome, but after it was discovered in Webster it has been associated with football players.
Our anatomy makes it easy for CTE to develop in a person who receives multiple hits to the head. The building blocks of the brain, neurons, help transmit information to other parts of the body. The long and skinny part of the neuron called the axon is used to transmit information, but is very fragile, making them easy to break. Neurons also use microtubules, which are very fragile, to help distribute chemicals within the neuron. A protein called Tau helps give microtubules support, but with head impacts they can break down and the Tau can change shape, clump together, and spread, causing parts of the brain to atrophy.
Symptoms of CTE
- Memory Loss
- Personality changes including depression and suicidal thoughts
- Erratic behavior including aggression
- The inability to pay attention and organize thoughts
- Difficulty with balance and motor skills
Since CTE affects people with repeated blows to the head, many people can be affected by it. Football players have dominated the conversation but other sports can cause it including soccer, hockey, rugby, boxing, wrestling, basketball, field hockey, cheerleading, and lacrosse. CTE has also been found in people who repeatedly bang their heads, have been physically abused, and have received blast injuries while in the military.
The only real way to prevent CTE is to avoid multiple head impacts. People can do this by being more careful while playing sports or avoiding sports altogether. The National Football League (NFL) has also taken steps to help curb the problem of CTE by banning helmet to helmet hitting, which has reduced concussions and reduced the chances players develop CTE.