By Lauren Fournier, DPT
In 2017, Dr. Ann McKee of Boston University published findings that found from 111 deceased NFL players, 99% showed signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). This is brain degeneration believed to be caused by repeated head trauma. Since this was published, further discoveries have found the risk builds over the course of a player’s career no matter what level of play. This research also found that for every 2.6 years of playing football, a player’s risk for developing CTE doubles. The recent research took a sample of 266 deceased football players from brain banks at the Veterans Affairs–Boston University–Concussion Legacy Foundation (VA-BU-CLF) and the Framingham Heart Study to avoid just looking at the brains of former NFL players with suspected CTE. McKee and her colleagues made sure to acquire brains of players that had been involved in contact and collision sports across levels, from youth to professional. The results: “Each additional year of play corresponded to 30% higher odds of having CTE at death.”
Researchers are now working on the ability to detect CTE in living patients. Once it can be identified without having to do a post-mortem tissue analysis, researchers will be able to monitor the disease and more importantly: develop a treatment. Recent research shows that scientists may be able to use PET scans to discern a certain pattern of a protein called tau that has been associated with CTE.
Dr. McKee has also found that there is a particular genotype that is associated with certain outcomes of CTE. “Inflammation is key, is critical to the development of CTE, and people’s genetic predispositions toward different types of inflammation may determine whether or not you’re more or less susceptible to the disease,” she says. “What’s going to come up more and more is genetic variables that determine susceptibility.”
It will be interesting to see what comes of this most recent research and how it may affect athletes’ and their families’ decisions on when they begin playing football or if they even play at all.