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What is chronic traumatic encephalopathy?

Chronic traumatic encephalopathy is a neurodegenerative disease that may affect amateur and professional athletes involved in high contact sports. It's also known as dementia pugilistica or "punch drunk". The term "punch drunk" came from observing signs of slowed/slurred speech, tremors, and confusion in boxers. Signs and symptoms may develop over the lifetime of a person through repetitive blows to the head that are thought to be cumulative.

The question Doctors are researching now is how much can the brain take over a person's lifetime before CTE starts to develop, and if it is truly linked to repetitive trauma. Dr. Ann McKee describes what is chronic traumatic encephalopathy.

Diagnosing chronic traumatic encephalopathy

There is currently no way to determine if a person has chronic traumatic encephalopathy while a person is still living. Diagnosis is made post-mortem by a neuropatholgist.

Current work by Dr. Ann McKee out of the Boston University has been cutting edge in suggesting the link between head trauma like traumatic brain injury and CTE. Work done by Dr. Julian Bailes and Bennet Omalu out of Research Institute in West Virginia has also been instrumental in understanding CTE.

Over the life of an individual it's thought that each occurrence of a blow to the head or head trauma increases the amount of tau protein in the brain. On brain slides tau protein looks like a brown sticky muck that accumulates in the soft tissues of the brain. It's thought that this accumulation of tau protein is related to head trauma. The slide below shows three brain slices:

From Left to Right:

1) A normal brain of a 65 year old
2) The brain of former NFL linebacker, John Grimsley (who suffered 8 concussions and died at age 45)
3) The brain of a 73 year old boxer who suffered from an extreme form of dementia pugilistica

chronic traumatic encephalopathy slide WBUR healthy vs. non-healthy tau protein brain

Photo via WBUR

The brown spots represent the tau protein tangles present in their brains.

Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy Symptoms

Sports Linked to Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy

According to Dr. Ann McKee there have been 51 confirmed cases of CTE, 46 of which occurred in athletes.

Sports thought to have a higher risk for athletes developing CTE:

Boxing has the highest known occurance of CTE.

Resources on CTE

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