CTE Triggered By Hits To Head, Not Just Concussions

Hall of Famer Junior Seau committed suicide following his playing career and then was diagnosed with CTE

Hall of Famer Junior Seau committed suicide following his playing career and then was diagnosed with CTE

A game-changing study shows smaller repetitive hits to the head - not just concussions - may cause CTE, the degenerative brain disease notoriously plaguing a number of former National Football League stars.

Ron Dowd says the new findings that hard hits can cause brain damage in several sports at a young age - makes sense. When researchers compared the brains to those of four teenage athletes who had not suffered recent head trauma, they found that those brains did not have the same pathologies.

The conversation surrounding CTE has primarily focused on the role concussions play in the accumulation of the tau protein in blood vessels in the brain, which can cause cell death, dementia and cognitive impairments. As it happens, CTE is characterized by the accumulation of tau proteins around the blood vessels.

Hockey Hall of Famer and Islanders great Clark Gillies says the study proves what many have known all along: Getting hit in the head, concussion or not, is not a good thing.

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Researchers from Boston University analyzed brains from teenagers and young adults who had been exposed to mild head impact but died from another cause soon after. To try and understand the source of the changes, Goldstein and his colleagues mimicked the experiences of the human brains in mouse models, by exposing mice to repeated head trauma, like that in football, and single blast head trauma, similar to military combat. We were surprised that the brain pathology was unrelated to signs of concussion, including altered arousal and impaired balance, among others.

There was no correlation between signs of a concussion at the time of a head injury and CTE brain conditions, according to study author Lee E. Goldstein, MD, PhD.

Then, the researchers did experiments on mice, exposing them to two different kind of head injuries.

The new findings shocked researchers, but they mirror what athletes see on a regular basis, said Chris Nowinski, a former pro wrestler and CEO of Boston-based Concussion Legacy Foundation. "[With] all of these people, we need to take the focus off concussion and find out if they have injured brains", Goldstein said, in an interview with NPR.

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The results could affect every athlete playing an impact sport.

"To prevent the disease, you have to prevent head impact", Goldstein said.

CTE has caused serious problems among athletes, veterans, and others who have experienced head trauma. Goldstein is an associate professor in the university's School of Medicine and College of Engineering. Goldstein said that while the new work advanced understanding of the mechanisms underlying CTE, it's not clear how frequently people experience these types of changes in the brain.

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