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Study gives clues about how athletes’ brain disease starts

Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) is a disease that is associated with repeat brain trauma, such as that that might be obtained through playing contact sports and getting injured more than once. An injury that might play into this disease is a concussion. New research published August 21, 2013 in the online issue of the journal Neurology, suggests that CTE could initially affect behavior, mood, memory or thinking abilities. Characterized by impulsivity, depression and erratic behavior, CTE can only currently be diagnosed after death, an article by Health Day explains.

“This is the largest study to date of the clinical presentation and course of CTE in autopsy-confirmed cases of the disease,” said study author Robert A. Stern, PhD, a professor of neurology and neurosurgery at Boston University School of Medicine. “However, the overall number of cases in the study is still small and there may be more variations in CTE than described here.”

To examine the effects of CTE on the brain, the research team examined the brains of 36 athletes (deceased) who had been diagnosed with CTE but did not have any other known brain conditions, such as Alzheimer’s disease. The athletes came mainly from football, but also included athletes from the sports of hockey, wrestling and boxing. All of these sports involve rough contact that can result in brain injury and thus lead to CTE, as was the case with the 36 subjects in the study.

To decipher how CTE impacted the subjects’ lives, the researchers did extended questionnaires with the families and loved ones of the subjects. They asked questions about the subjects’ lives, memories, and specific questions about topics like dementia and memory to see if the subjects’ lives were impacted in this way from the CTE. The athletes in the study were aged 17 to 98. The team found that 22 of the athletes suffered behavior or mood problems as the first symptoms of CTE. Eleven were impacted by memory or thinking problems first. However, mood problems appeared to impact the subjects earlier in life than memory problems.

CTE has been in the news recently with former NFL players suing the league just last year, claiming that the league did not do enough to protect them from traumatic brain injury and did not explain to them the dangers of concussions. Over 4,000 players joined the lawsuit. Additionally, a former NFL linebacker committed suicide last year; after death he was diagnosed with CTE. Scientists are unsure if the number of concussions plays into the development of CTE; for now, the only advice is to avoid blows to the head.