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The Drumbeat Continue: More Research Linking Concussions to Permanent Brain Injury

This week brought news of yet another tragedy involving a professional football player. A Chiefs linebacker made headlines after turning a gun on his girlfriend (and mother of his child) before using the gun to end his own life. The brazen act took place in front of two of his own coaches who were trying to talk him down. The incident is far too fresh to make any assumptions about what did or did not cause the destructive behavior. However, in speculating about the situation, many have already mentioned how this latest tragedy is just another in a long line of similar incidents related to current and former professional athetes in high-contact sports, particularly football.

More Brain Injury Research
In addition, the incident comes on the heels of even more research into the long-term consequences of repeat brain injuries. The report was released on Monday by experts at the Boston Uniersity School of Medicine. The research effort was an analysis of information from at least 85 brain donors. The experts summarized the findings by noting that they fall in line with previous work which suggests serious consequences for those who suffer repeat head trauma from athletics–even those participated in before reaching collegiate or professional levels.

At the center of the problem is a condition known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). In an article discussing the research, CTE is referred to as an “Alzheimer’s-like condition.” It develops in part due to the build up of “clogging” tau proteins in the brain tissue. Those proteins ultimately lead to the death of brain cells, with various negative effects on the patient. Researchers noted in this latest effort, published this month in Brain, that CTE has several stages. At first it comes with headaches when the victim is younger. This progresses to depression, memory loss, and short term anger. Eventually more serious symptoms develop, including full-blown dementia.

The head academic in the effort explained that this latest research effort is incredibly valuable for its size. Considering the number of brain autopsies examained, he noted that “this should put to rest all doubts about the fact that CTE is a very real and harmful problem.”

Consequences of Brain Injuries
It remains to be seen how these latest efforts will play into ongoing brain injury lawsuits filed agains the NFL. We have often discussed those suits (and similar cases filed against the NCAA for college players), which suggests that league officials hid or underplayed information connecting the sport to serious depression, dementia, and other long-term harm.

To be fair, there are some neurologists who suggest that more evidence is needed before explicitly connecting the CTE to multiple concussions. For example, one professional interviewed in the story noted that, “Yes we can all agree now that this is a real brain condition, but we don’t all agree on whether multiple concussions cause the emergence of this entity.”

However, the fact remains that evidence of CTE has never been found in any individual who did not suffer repeated blows to the head from athletic activity. While this is not definitive proof that athletic sport contact causes the condition, it is influential when trying to get at the root of the problem. More information is needed, but it is undeniable that players, coaches, parents, athletic trainers, schools, universities, and professional leagues must do everything in their power to take these understandings into account to keep players safe.

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