Sports-Related Brain Injury Linked with Brain Disease

Researchers examined brain tissue of former athletes and found that traumatic brain injury can lead to an Alzheimer's-like disease later in life.

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About this time every year, as high school football season gears up, we start hearing stories about the health risks associated with contact sports—especially when it comes to kids. There’s good reason: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that each year emergency rooms see an estimated 135,000 sports-related concussion cases in kids ages 5 to 18.

In all, about 1.7 million people sustain traumatic brain injury annually; of those, more than 50,000 people die.

A new study of professional and high school athletes found that those who suffered repeated blows to the head are at risk for developing a brain disease called chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). It surfaces years later in the form of memory loss, mood disorders and, in some cases, early dementia. The California researchers who conducted the study reported their results in this month’s issue of Neurosurgery.

The disease was first documented in 2002 after UC Davis clinical professor Bennet Omalu examined the brain of former Pittsburgh Steelers center Mike Webster. In the current study, Omalu and his colleagues examined brain tissue from 17 deceased athletes, including eight professional football players, four pro wrestlers, and three high school football players.

Examining the samples under a microscope, researchers found plaques and protein tangles consistent with what’s typically observed in Alzheimer’s patients. But they noticed that in these cases the pattern was different: The tangles found in Alzheimer’s patients are scattered throughout the brain in a fairly even distribution, while those in the athletes’ brains were found in concentrated pockets. Another distinction: Alzheimer’s patients are typically over 60 years old; these subjects were between the ages of 18 and 52.

Of the 17 samples they looked at, researchers found that 10 of the 14 professional athletes had CTE. One of the three high schoolers did, too.

Currently, an autopsy is required to diagnose CTE. Omalu and his team are working on ways to identify the disease in living subjects and develop drugs for treatment. In the long term, it’s possible that a genetic test could be used to identify athletes with a higher vulnerability for CTE.

Of course, knowing the risk won’t stop some people from stepping on the playing field. But at least they’ll have all the facts.