Contact sports consisting of years of blows to the head are directly linked to a pattern of brain damage starting with an athlete having trouble focusing, followed by aggression and eventually dementia, according to a new study from Boston University researchers.

Six high school football players’ brains were among the 68 brains exhibiting chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) examined in a new, biggest-of-its kind study that has historically established four progressive stages of the degenerative brain disease CTE.

The new study, published in the journal Brain, “extends our knowledge concerning the spectrum of the clinical and pathological abnormalities associated with CTE,” says Ann McKee, lead author of the study and a School of Medicine professor and a co-director of the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy (CSTE).

CTE is believed to be caused by repeated brain trauma and has been seen in military veterans, professional athletes, and in people who may hurt themselves with repetitive head-banging, according to the authors.

The brains examined during this study belonged to men ranging in age from 17 to 98 years. Sixty-four of them were athletes (over a third of them were also veterans), three were veterans with no athletic background, and one had several injuries related to head-banging.

Nearly half (33) of the men had played in the National Football League, four in the National Hockey League, seven were professional boxers, and one played in the Canadian Football League. Included in this group were a number of athletes who passed away last year; running back Cookie Gilchrist, Hall of Fame running back Ollie Matson, and Hall of Fame tight end John Mackey, to name a few.

The investigators also questioned survivors of the brain donors in order to learn about behaviors that were seen as the disease advanced.

Stage 1

  • headaches
  • problems concentrating
  • problems remaining alert

Stage 2

Stage 3

  • cognitive impairment
  • issues with planning
  • difficulty with organization
  • difficulty with judgment
  • issues with multi-tasking

Stage 4

Regardless of the progression this study represents, crucial information for successful treatment of CTE continues to be difficult to pinpoint, including how common the disease is, variations between CTE’s symptoms and those of similar conditions, as well as the impact of genetics, and other environmental factors.

The paper specifically states:

“Inclusion of more rigorous control subjects, such as individuals who experienced repetitive mild traumatic brain injury and did not develop behavioral or cognitive abnormalities, will be extremely useful in future studies.”

One thing that remains a mystery is how much exposure to brain trauma can prompt CTE. There was no conclusive evidence pointing to whether isolated, occasional, or well-managed concussions could cause it.

The Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy (CSTE) is a primary force in researching this disease – it has a bank of over 135 donated brains, 80 percent of which have signs of CTE. Over 600 athletes have offered to donate their brains to the bank for research after they pass away.

The center has encouraged the National Football League to alter rules to prevent players from head trauma. The NFL has banned the most dangerous helmet-to-helmet hits, while college and youth football programs have begun initiatives to restrict the number of hits-to-the-head players undergo during practices and games.

Just this past Saturday, Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher killed his girlfriend and then turned the gun on himself committing suicide, stunning his teammates, coaches and fans of the National Football League. Although there is no evidence that Belcher’s actions were associated with a brain injury, CTE can cause confusion, misery, and aggressive behavior.

Belcher played in the league for just four seasons and was only 25 years old. Other frequently reported suicides of players with longer careers in football, including Junior Seau in May, Ray Easterling in April and Dave Duerson last year, have brought into the limelight the number of head and brain injuries that commonly occur in football, and their long term consequences.

Written by Kelly Fitzgerald