What is Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy?

Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, also known as CTE, is a progressive, degenerative brain disease believed to be caused by repeated head trauma. Initial research on the disease emerged in the late 1920s, as medical professionals noted that professional boxers experienced a sharp cognitive decline with age and the boxers were said to be “punch drunk”. Research over recent decades has demonstrated that Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy is not solely restricted to professional fighters. Individuals who participate in contact sports including football, soccer, basketball and hockey; military veterans; victims of domestic abuse; and others at risk for repetitive instances of blunt trauma to the brain have an elevated chance of developing CTE.

What Causes Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy?

The neuropathology underlying CTE has features that separate CTE pathology from other neurodegenerative diseases. Repeated impacts to the brain leads to the abnormal buildup of a protein called tau. Tau proteins normally serve to stabilize neurons in the brain, but in CTE these proteins undergo changes and form clumps which interfere with normal brain cell function.  In CTE, the areas of the brain most affected are the frontal lobes, amygdala and hippocampus.  This distribution of the abnormal tau protein in the brain distinguishes CTE from other neurodegenerative diseases of the brain. These brain areas are reduced in size and in the most severe cases, overall brain mass may be reduced by up to 50 percent.

What are the Symptoms of CTE?

The symptoms of CTE aren’t observable immediately following traumatic incidents. Generally, symptoms of CTE begin to slowly surface over a number of years.  The early symptoms of CTE may include headaches, dizziness, and disorientation along with emotional instability, memory deficits, erratic behavior, mood swings and difficulty concentrating. As the disease progresses, the onset of aggression, lack of impulse control, movement disorders, loss of facial control, speech impediments, and tremors are noted   These symptoms of early onset dementia have led individuals with severe CTE to commit suicide.

Who is Most likely to Suffer from CTE?

Athletes at the professional level are the largest demographic group studied to suffer from CTE due to frequent concussions from contact-sports. A recent study, conducted by Boston University CTE researchers who studied the brains of 111 deceased former NFL players,

reported that 110 of the 111 deceased NFL players had neuropathological evidence for CTE.  These findings suggested that repeated blows to the brain were cumulative over the years and were associated with the development of CTE.

Are there any Cures for CTE? When can Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy be diagnosed?

While recent research has identified strong ties between head trauma and CTE, much is still unknown about the disease. Currently, there is no known cure for Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy and a definitive diagnosis can only be made at the time of autopsy . Furthermore, it is believed by some medical professionals that possibly genetics and the age at which one is first exposed to head trauma may play a role in the development of CTE. Finally, while the concentration of tau protein buildup and the location of the buildup in the brain can be used to predict CTE, researchers are not able to state the number of cranial impacts it takes to develop the disease since not all individuals with repeated head trauma have developed CTE.