Researchers have been studying the brain tissue from retired NFL athletes posthumously, and are "shedding light on what concussions look like in the brain" with stunning results.
Even with improvements in helmets, shin guards, mouth guards, and other modern protective equipment, participants in high-speed contact sports such as football, hockey, and even soccer risk serious injury. Thanks to advances in neurological research and imaging, there has been growing awareness of the dangers of sports-related concussions, but scientists are still studying the long-term effects of this form of brain injury.
Researchers at the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy (CSTE), part of the Boston University School of Medicine, have been studying the brain tissue from retired NFL athletes posthumously, and are “shedding light on what concussions look like in the brain” with stunning results. They have learned that concussions “confer tremendous brain damage,” and can lead to a degenerative brain disease called chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) .
Dr. Ann McKee, CSTE co-director and a leading neuropathologist specializing in degenerative brain diseases, said, “I’ve seen thousands of individuals with neurogenerative diseases and debilitating diseases… I can say this is identical to the pugilistica dementia that I’ve seen in boxers in their 70s and 80s. It’s milder because the patients are younger. But once triggered, it seems to progress. The people that develop this disease, most of them show symptoms 10 or 20 years after retirement. It progresses inexorably until death” .
Of the six NFL players who died young (40-50 years old) and whose brains were examined, CTE was found in each. “What’s been surprising is that it’s so extensive,” McKee said. “It’s throughout the brain, not just on the superficial aspects of the brain, but it’s deep inside.” McKee also said that the brown tangles researchers found throughout the brain tissue, “closely resemble what might be found in the brain of an 80-year-old with dementia.”
It’s unfortunate that physicians can only confirm CTE diagnosis through post-mortem tissue analysis, as X-rays and MRI tests are unable to detect the condition at the present.
The NFL recently announced it will commission an independent medical study of retired players on the long-term effects of concussion. The league also issued a statement saying that teams’ staffs “take a cautious, conservative approach to managing concussions.”
The Sports Legacy Institute (a CSTE partner) co-founder Chris Nowinski said, “The idea that you can whack your head hundreds of times in your life and knock yourself out and get up and be fine is gone. We known we can’t do that anymore. This causes long-term damage.” As of now, approximately 1,000 athletes have agreed to have their brains studied upon their deaths.