The All-American Brain Disease

Chronic traumatic encephalopathy common among American football players


It's football season again, a time for tailgating, touchdowns and rooting for the home team. But this American tradition may not be without its dangers.

A new study from the US Department of Veterans Affairs and Boston University found that a degenerative brain disease called chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) may be rampant among football players — especially in those who encounter collisions during most plays, such as linemen. CTE is widely believed to stem from repeated trauma to the head.

"People think that we’re blowing this out of proportion, that this is a very rare disease and that we’re sensationalizing it," said Ann McKee, MD, director and chief of neuropathology at the VA Boston Healthcare System, in an interview with PBS. "My response is that, [from] where I sit, this is a very real disease. We have had no problem identifying it in hundreds of players."

Repeated head trauma causes a buildup of abnormal proteins called tau in the brain. This can result in memory loss, confusion, impaired judgment, impulse control problems, aggression, depression and even dementia.

Dementia is a general term for a decline in mental ability severe enough to interfere with daily life.

For this study, researchers looked at brain tissue samples from 165 deceased football players.

CTE was found in 131 of these patients, who played football (either professionally, semi-professionally, in college or in high school) before their deaths.

About 95 percent of the former NFL players and about 80 percent of all other former football players also tested positive for CTE. About 40 percent of those who tested positive were offensive and defensive linemen.

Despite these findings, Dr. McKee noted that CTE can only be identified definitively in autopsy. Many of the players studied also suspected they had CTE and donated their brains to science, which may have skewed the results.

According to Dr. McKee, the biggest challenge for CTE researchers is convincing people that it's an actual disease amidst resistance that comes from those with a "vested interest" in football.