When the LA Rams and Cincinnati Bengals meet for the Super Bowl on Feb. 13, America’s attention will be focused on the action taking place on the field, but it is also a good time to focus on a condition that occurs after the action is over.
Jan. 30 is National Awareness Day for CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy), a degenerative brain disease found in athletes, military veterans, and others with a history of repetitive brain trauma. CTE is especially common among people who play American football.
“The biggest correlation to CTE is how many years did you play tackle football. Whether in first grade or the NFL, it doesn’t matter,” said Chris Nowinski, CEO of the Concussion Legacy Foundation. “It’s the number of years, and every year you play, it’s a 30 percent increase in the chance of getting CTE.”
Chandler Kimball’s parents, who created a foundation to address CTE after Chandler died at age 25, emphasize that the risk is not only for pros: “Many would have you believe that only professional NFL players suffer from CTE because they play long careers. But there is general agreement now that the worst damage gets done when players are young and physically still developing.”
Science has been aware of the impact CTE had on boxers since the 1920s, but, perhaps because the condition can only be identified through analysis of a victim’s brain after they die, CTE’s prevalence among football players was only recognized recently.
Research into causes and treatment
Dr. Ann McKee of Boston University conducted a 2017 study on the brains of 202 deceased NFL professionals and discovered that 110 of the 111 brains of former NFL players had chronic traumatic encephalopathy.
“In a convenience sample of deceased American football players, a substantial percentage revealed pathological evidence of CTE,” according to the research. “Football players may be at a higher risk of long-term brain problems, including chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).”
Scientists have much to learn about the condition. “Researchers do not yet know the prevalence of CTE in the general population,” according to mayoclinic.org. “CTE has no known treatment. Researchers are presently developing diagnostic biomarkers for CTE, but none have yet been validated.”
Gene therapy does offer some hope. Researchers at Weill Cornell Medical College addressed the source of CTE, which occurs when trauma-induced inflammation leads to accumulation of “a microtubule-binding protein Tau (pTau), resulting in neurofibrillary tangles and progressive loss of neurons,” according to a study published in January 2020.
The researchers said they used “gene transfer vector coding for a monoclonal antibody directed against pTau,” injecting mice with this antibody and achieving reductions in pTau. This approach suggests “a new strategy to interrupt the CTE consequences” of traumatic brain injury in humans, the researchers said.