BU Researchers Find CTE Can Be Caused By Even Minor Head Injuries

Concussions are not necessary for a person to develop the neurodegenerative disease.

The running back dives for the first down with the defender on his back.

Photo via istock.com/danp68

Just four NFL teams are left vying for this season’s Super Bowl, but as the league approaches one of its biggest weekends of the year, new research on head injuries could cast the games in a new light.

In a study published Thursday in the journal Brain, a Boston University-led research team found evidence that Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy can be found even in athletes who did not show signs of concussions. CTE, which is caused by the accumulation of the protein tau, is a degenerative brain disease that leads to cognitive decline and dementia, and has been found in the brains of a variety of high-profile athletes, including Aaron Hernandez.

But despite the acute attention paid to the links between concussions and CTE, the researchers discovered those with the condition may never experience a concussion at all. Any collision that involves a person’s head could lead to the problem, even ones that seem very minor.

“These findings provide strong evidence—the best evidence we have so far—that sub-concussive impacts are not only dangerous, but also causally linked to CTE,” Lee Goldstein, an associated professor at BU’s School of Medicine and a co-author of the study, said in a press release.

To conduct the research, scientists compared the post-mortem brains of teenage athletes who had sustained head injuries to the brains of those who had not. The researchers found signs of CTE emerged within 24 hours of an impactful head injury in the first group.

“By focusing on the concussion we’re missing people that are hit and hurt and not getting helped,” Goldstein told the Boston Globe.

Last July, BU’s CTE Center examined the brains of 111 former NFL players and found 110 of them had the disease. Researchers say that in order to change those statistics, high-impact activities need to be reevaluated.

“In order to reduce CTE risk in contact sport athletes and military veterans, there must be a reduction in the number of head impacts,” Ann McKee, one of the study’s co-authors and the director of BU’s CTE Center, said in a press release. “The continued focus on concussion and symptomatic recovery does not address the fundamental danger these activities pose to human health.”

The rapidness with which the symptoms emerge coupled with the lack of mandatory concussion diagnosis should be a warning for those concerned about the progressive disease, Goldstein told CNN.