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How A Lifetime Of Football Can Affect The Brain

The truth about the contact sport and the risk of brain damage


What's going on?

Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) is a degenerative brain disease found in individuals exposed to repetitive hits to the head, such as military veterans and contact sport athletes – American football players in particular. When this happens, a protein called Tau forms and slowly spreads throughout the brain in clumps, interrupting critical information flow. Some common symptoms include memory loss, impaired judgment, aggression, depression, anxiety, impulse control issues, and even suicidal behavior.


In 2005, the first confirmed case of CTE in a National Football League player was published. Since then, the evidence of a positive correlation between CTE and prior participation in American football has only increased. A 2017 Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) study uncovers a set of shocking figures that show 177 out of 202 brains (87%) of deceased American football players across levels of all play, including 110 of 111 (99%) former National Football League players, were indicative of CTE. The samples tested were donated to the VA-BU-CLF Brain Bank, the largest tissue repository in the world.


Though the only way to diagnose CTE is after death, it is crucial to realize symptoms like depression or anxiety can and should be treated during one’s lifetime. Scientists have found that mild cases were more likely to have experienced behavioral mood symptoms during their lifetime or to have died by suicide, while severe cases were more likely to have experienced cognitive symptoms, such as memory loss. The NFL was criticized for downplaying the issue but has since made the game arguably safer and invested millions in medical and neuroscience research. The VA-BU-CLF Brain Bank research team, on the other hand, is currently developing a diagnostic test and treatment for CTE in living persons.


CTE found in 99% of studied brains from deceased NFL players