Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) and Brain Health

Many athletes play sports that can result in repeated head trauma. In some cases, these injuries can lead to chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a brain condition that can cause cognitive, behavioral, and mood changes later in life, as brain tissue is killed off by the same damaging protein that causes Alzheimer’s disease.

Student athletes who participate in contact sports are at a high risk for CTE.

What is CTE and How Does It Affect Brain Health?

Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy is a brain condition caused by repeated blows to the head or repeated concussions. It is most common among professional athletes like boxers or football players, but can also affect high school and college-level athletes who may play soccer, football, or other potentially high-impact sports.

The repeated trauma causes progressive degeneration in brain tissue and can result in an abnormal build-up of a normal brain protein called tau. These clumps of tau are linked to Alzheimer's and other brain diseases. The most common symptoms of CTE include memory loss, confusion, and difficulty with impulse control, which can start several years, even decades after the sports were played.

football players

Is CTE Considered Brain Damage?

CTE is a form of progressive brain damage, as the symptoms continue to get worse over time and result in death. As tau protein builds up in increasing amounts in the brain, it overcomes the brain’s volume and kills brain cells.

The four stages that people experience as they move through the CTE disease progression include these behavioral changes:

Stage One

May be asymptomatic or complain about mild memory loss, depression, and anxiety

Stage Two

Can include outbursts or mood swings that may lead to severe emotional distress

Stage Three

Have difficulty focusing mentally, problems with executive functioning skills like planning for future events, unable to stay organized during everyday activities

Stage Four

Will experience advanced language deficit, paranoia, motor control deficits, tremors

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Can CTE Be Reversed or Treated?

While a person can live with CTE for many years, there are no known ways to reverse it or treat it medically. In fact, there is no way to diagnose CTE, beyond examining the brain post-mortem.

If you or a family member are suffering from what is believed to be CTE, your physician will typically recommend that you do everything you can to prevent further brain trauma. It’s also important to keep abreast of medical innovations releated to CTE, so that you’re aware of new diagnostic and treatment options as they come to light.

Preventing CTE

Researchers believe that there are actions you can take to minimize the chances of getting CTE after head trauma, specifically avoiding future injury and following all recommended protocol after a concussion or other head trauma.

While it can be difficult to prevent CTE from high-impact sports, following the proper protocol, both before and after any head trauma, is helpful. Follow all safety measures for the sport, wear a protective helmet, and make sure the individuals that are supervising the sport are trained on proper safety practices.

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Supporting Brain Health After Injury

Sports injuries can be difficult for both the athlete and their loved ones. Fortunately, there are things that can be done to improve the healing journey. Research shows that athletes can recover more quickly with proper care. For example, some doctors recommend hyperbaric oxygen treatments, mind-body practices like yoga and tai chi, and proper brain nutrition can all enhance recovery from traumatic brain injury.

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