New research suggests even mild head injuries pose a risk for the development of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a neurodegenerative disease.
Millions of Americans tune into the Super Bowl each year for a few hours of good, old fashioned entertainment. But as evidence mounts as to the health effects of the sport on its players, America’s favorite pastime starts to look increasingly problematic.
Clashing helmets and high-impact tackles can result in concussions, which, occurring repeatedly over time, can cause chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). CTE has been linked to a host of cognitive and mental health concerns, including memory loss and mood disorders. The disease is a threat not only to professional football players, but to players of contact sports at all levels, as well as military service members exposed to blasts, survivors of abuse and others.
Research presents clear associations between concussions and CTE, but less is known about the effects of milder head injury on the brain.
New research, however, suggests that less serious injuries not linked to concussions still can lead to traumatic brain injury and development of the early signs of CTE. In other words, injuries that are perceived as less risky — par for the course, even — in sports might have grave consequences for players.
The researchers — an international group led by scholars from Boston University’s School of Medicine — drew these conclusions after a number of experiments. Comparing sections of brains from deceased teenage athletes who experienced mild head injuries to demographically similar samples without head injuries, they found in the former group signs indicative of CTE. One such indicator was the presence of tau protein. The accretion of this protein in the brain leads to the degeneration of neurons.
The scholars developed a means of delivering a head-impact injury to mice without inducing concussion to further examine the brain pathologies present after such injuries. When they examined the mice brains, they found similar pathologies indicative of CTE as in the brains of the teenage athletes. The scholars conclude that these findings suggest milder impact injuries not associated with concussions might still pose a significant risk.
The National Football League, along with other institutions, including the National Institutes of Health, funded this research.