As athletes of all sports speak out about their brain injury fears, we run through the need-to-know facts about risks, symptoms, tests and research.
1. Concussion is a red herring: Big hits are not the problem, ALL head hits cause damage
All sports insist they are doing more to prevent concussions in athletes to protect their brain health.
However, Boston University (the leading center on this topic) published a groundbreaking study in January to demolish the obsession with concussions.
Concussions, they found, are the red herring: it is not a ‘big hit’ that triggers the beginning of a neurodegenerative brain disease. Nor does a ‘big hit’ makes it more likely.
In fact, it is the experience of repeated subconcussive hits over time that increases the likelihood of brain disease.
In a nutshell: any tackle or header in a game – or even in practice – increases the risk of a player developing a brain disease.
2. What is the feared disease CTE?
Head hits can cause various brain injuries, including ALS (the disease Stephen Hawking had), Parkinson’s, and dementia.
But CTE is one that seems to be particularly associated with blows to the head (while the others occur commonly in non-athletes).
CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) is a degenerative brain disease that is caused by repeated hits to the head.
It is very similar to Alzheimer’s in the way that it starts with inflammation and a build-up of tau proteins in the brain.
These clumps of tau protein built up in the frontal lobe, which controls emotional expression and judgment (similar to dementia).
This interrupts normal functioning and blood flow in the brain, disrupting and killing nerve cells.
Gradually, these proteins multiply and spread, slowly killing other cells in the brain. Over time, this process starts to trigger symptoms in the sufferer, including confusion, depression and dementia.
By the later stages (there are four stages of pathology), the tau deposits expand from the frontal lobe (at the top) to the temporal lobe (on the sides). This affects the amygdala and the hippocampus, which controls emotion and memory.
3. What are the symptoms?
Sufferers and their families have described them turning into ‘ghosts’.
CTE affects emotion, memory, spatial awareness, and anger control.
- Suicidal thoughts
- Uncontrollable rage
- Forgetting names, people, things (like dementia)
- Refusal to eat or talk
4. Can sufferers be diagnosed during life?
No. While a person may suffer from clear CTE symptoms, the only way to diagnose their CTE is in a post-mortem examination.
More than 3,000 former athletes and military veterans have pledged to donate their brains to the Concussion Legacy Foundation for CTE research.
Meanwhile, there are various studies on current and former players to identify biomarkers that could detect CTE.