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Repeat Mild Head Injury Linked to Brain Disease in Athletes

December 4, 2012 — Researchers from Boston University have found evidence that repeated mild traumatic brain injuries are linked to a long-term, incurable, degenerative brain disease. The 4-year study involved autopsies on 85 brains, including 35 brains from professional football players. Thousands of former football players have joined a massive lawsuit against the NFL alleging that it hid information linking head trauma to permanent brain damage.

The researchers found that 80% of the brains showed signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease that can cause depression, dementia, and aggressive behavior. All of the brains were donated by men between the ages of 17 and 98, most of whom were athletes, military veterans, or both. One brain was donated by a man who engaged in self-injurious head banging behavior. Autopsies on these brains were compared to 18 subjects who had no history of mild, repetitive traumatic brain injuries.

CTE was diagnosed in 50 football players — including brains donated by high school and college athletes, in addition to professional players. The disease was also found in former boxers, hockey players, wrestlers, and military veterans who were exposed to repeated IED explosions on the battlefield.

The study suggests that CTE is not associated with one or two traumatic concussions, but rather repetitive mild head trauma over several years.

Unfortunately, CTE can only be diagnosed with an autopsy, and people with the disease cannot be cured. With millions of athletes at risk, many football programs have taken steps to limit head trauma in games. Helmet-on-helmet hits are banned in the NFL. Many youth programs are also reducing contact in very young players.

Symptoms of CTE may include:

  • Headache
  • Loss of attention and concentration
  • Depression
  • Explosivity
  • Short-term memory loss
  • Cognitive impairment
  • Dementia
  • Word-finding difficulty
  • Aggression
  • And more

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