Local Researchers Find Indicators Of Brain Disease Caused By Concussions

BU researchers are studying chronic traumatic encephalopathy, which affects many NFL players and combat soldiers.

Football players are likely to experience frequent head injuries, and may be at risk for CTE. Football helmet image via Shutterstock.

Football players are likely to experience frequent concussions, and may be at risk for CTE. Football helmet image via Shutterstock.

Concussions and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease, have been all over the news. CTE can only be diagnosed after death, but Boston University researchers from the school’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy may have found new behavioral methods that would allow doctors to identify the disease while a patient is still alive.

The study, which was published in the online journal, Neurology, found that CTE may reveal itself in two ways before death: by affecting behavior or mood, or by affecting memory and thinking abilities.

“This is the largest study to date of the clinical presentation and course of CTE in autopsy-confirmed cases of the disease,” study author Robert A. Stern, PhD, a professor of neurology and neurosurgery at Boston University School of Medicine, said in a release. “However, the overall number of cases in the study is still small and there may be more variations in CTE than described here.”

Dr. Stern and Dr. Ann McKee’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy has been called the “NFL brain bank”, as deceased players’ brains are often donated to the center for study. CTE has been found in former NFL players including Dave Duerson, Ray Esterling, and Junior Seau, all of whom committed suicide. It is also commonly identified post-mortem in soldiers who have seen combat. During their research, Stern and his colleagues examined the brains of 36 male athletes between the ages of 17 and 98 who had been diagnosed with CTE after death and who had no other brain diseases. The majority of the athletes in the study had played amateur or professional football, with the rest participating in hockey, wrestling, or boxing.

During the study, the participants’ family members were also interviewed about the athletes’ lives and medical histories, especially involving dementia and changes in thinking, behavior, mood, motor skills, or the ability to carry out basic living tasks. Researchers also reviewed the athletes medical records. According to the results of the study, 22 of the athletes had identifiable behavioral and mood problems before death. 11 of them had memory and thinking problems. Three of the athletes showed no symptoms of CTE at the time of their death.

Although these behavioral symptoms may be early identifiers for CTE, Stern noted in the study that the findings need to be viewed with caution, as the group was not compared to athletes without CTE. With youth concussions on the rise, it is important to consider the consequences of head injuries and to closely monitor those who have experienced multiple concussions.