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New Findings on C.T.E. in N.F.L. Brains

About a year ago, we published a post about the correlation between concussions in sports participants (mostly football players,) and the degenerative disease C.T.E. (chronic traumatic encephalopathy,) highlighting the work done by Dr. Bennett Omalu and how it was helping us better understand the disease. In it, we mentioned that though C.T.E. was currently only diagnosable after the player’s death, current studies were working with PET-CT machines to discover a way to diagnose it long before the patient dies. Now, the need for diagnosis before death is even more urgent; and so is the need for players to consider if these hard contact sports are worth the possibility of a debilitating disease.

The NYTimes just published a piece on Dr. Ann McKee, a neuropathologist who has examined the brains of 202 deceased football players. 111 of these players were in the NFL, and a whopping 110 were found to have C.T.E. Literally only one NFL players deceased brain was found to contain no traces of the disease, which is incredibly troubling. The symptoms of C.T.E. – memory loss, confusion, depression, and dementia, can arise many years after the concussions have ended. In addition to the 111 brains examined from the NFL, brains from the Canadian Football League, semi-professional players, college players, and high school players were also examined. All in all, out of 202 brains studied, 87 percent were found to have C.T.E. As suspected, the high school players brains showed mild cases of C.T.E., while the longer a player continued football the more severe the cases became. Even the mildest of the C.T.E. cases showed cognitive, mood, and behavioral symptoms.

Dr. Ann McKee working on a brain specimen in her lab.
Dr. Ann McKee working on a brain specimen in her lab.

The N.F.L brains themselves range in age from 23 to 89; and though they held every position on the field (quarterbacks, running backs, linebackers, place-kicker and punter,) it was found that the title which held the most C.T.E. sufferers was linemen, with 44 brains diagnosed with C.T.E. This may be because linemen not only knock heads on most plays, but suffer from concussions as well as seemingly benign, non-violent blows to the head. These blows, in addition to the concussions – probably cause C.T.E together, according to many brain researchers. To put it in perspective, one college offensive lineman sustained a whopping 62 blows to the head within a single game. Each blow came with an average force on the player’s head equivalent to driving his car into a brick wall at 30 mph.

Quarterbacks, on the other hand, made up less of the affected brains, with only 7. This is because quarterbacks are provided more protection than other players, though these protection rules have only recently been established.

There were 13 linebacker brains with C.T.E. found during the study, and Dr. McKee mentioned that linebackers who play for 10 years could sustain over 15,000 of these sub-concussive hits that lead to C.T.E. One player, Junior Seau, whose brain was not included in the study, was 43 when he killed himself with a gunshot to his chest in 2012. And although suicide is a common theme among sufferers of C.T.E., Dr. McKee says that no correlation between suicide and C.T.E has been firmly established.

When it comes to defensive backs, there were 17 brains found with C.T.E. One of the most notable was from Tyler Sash, a 27 year old former player for the Giants who was released after he sustained what as believed to be his fifth concussion. He died of an accidental overdose of pain medications in 2015 and his family requested his brain be examined for C.T.E. because he showed common symptoms – confusion, memory loss, and fits of anger. Even though he was so young, 16 years of playing football is more than enough time to have a high risk of developing C.T.E.

Some players were famous, such as Ken “Snake” Stabler, who was the Quarterback for the Oakland Raiders in the 70’s and is in the Hall of Fame. He ardently worried about his grandsons brains during youth football well before his death at age 69, his death officially caused by colon cancer; though when his brain was examined (per his request) it was found he had suffered from a moderately severe case of C.T.E. – the lesions being widespread, according to Dr. McKee.

Dr. McKee is the chief of neuropathology at the VA Boston Healthcare System and director of the C.T.E Center at Boston University, amassing the largest C.T.E. brain bank in the world. And the brains themselves? Many were specifically donated because the families of the deceased feared their loved one had suffered from the disease. This new discovery of the 110 C.T.E. positives is a significantly large number of players, and adds even more scientific evidence of an N.F.L. players risk of developing the disease. 1,300 former players have died since the B.U. group began examining brains, and even if 1,200 of these players would have tested negative (which is highly unlikely,) the minimum C.T.E. prevalence would be close to 9 percent, which is vastly higher than in the general population.

Even though it is still not possible to diagnose C.T.E. before death, progress on other fronts is being made. The N.F.L has officially recognized C.T.E. as a legitimate concern for their players, acknowledging the link between football and the disease. You may remember how ardently the N.F.L denied the existence of C.T.E. when Dr. Omalu made its discovery back in 2005. Luckily they’ve changed their ways. The N.F.L.’s senior vice president for health and safety, Jeff Miller, admitted recently that there was indeed a link between football and C.T.E. after being asked about it. He responded: “The answer to that is certainly, yes.” The N.F.L. have even advised children to avoid football in its regular form; encouraging safer tackling methods and suggesting flag football instead, and in a settlement with thousands of retire N.F.L players, the league has agreed to pay damages to families of those who were found to have the disease between 2006 and April of 2015, when the settlement was approved by a district court judge.

Normal Vs. Advance CTE brain
Normal Vs. Advance CTE brain

As for the single player whose brain did not show any signs of C.T.E., his family declined to have his identity released to the press.

There’s still so many questions about C.T.E. Who gets it and why? Even though currently it cannot be diagnosed before death, if in the future it is able to be diagnosed early, is there any way to reverse degeneration once it begins? Is there an exact number and level of blows to the head a player can take before C.T.E. starts to take shape?

Dr. McKee ends with this: “It is no longer debatable whether or not there is a problem in football – there is a problem.”

Source: 110 N.F.L Brains

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