Thanks to Will Smith’s new movie, Concussion, chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) is in the news. The movie chronicles the efforts of pathologist Bennett Omalu (played by Smith) to convince the NFL that big hits and permanent brain damage just might be connected. Omalu coined the name chronic traumatic encephalopathy after years over research.
Over the years there have been many football players found to have CTE, which unfortunately can be diagnosed only during autopsy. However, last week the federal government announced that they were earmarking nearly $16 million to find ways to diagnose CTE in living patients, with the hope that early diagnosis might make identification and treatment of the problem possible. Boston University researchers are part of the group receiving those federal dollars.
According to Robert Stern, professor of neurosurgery, neurology, and neurobiology and anatomy at the BU School of Medicine, CTE is a progressive disease starting earlier in life, related in some way to exposure to repetitive hits to the head. CTE gets worse as the person ages and the disease spreads throughout the brain, destroying brain cells.
Stern said CTE symptoms include changes in mood, such as apathy and depression; behavior changes such as aggression, rage and other impulse control problems; and problems with thinking, affecting planning and organization abilities. He says that, if the disease continues, eventually the person’s cognitive abilities will get bad enough that their daily life is impacted, which is referred to as dementia.
Although repeated blows to the head are a necessary factor in developing CTE, Stern says it is a mystery why some players develop CTE and others do not. Understanding more about the disease is necessary in order to figure out how common it is and why some people do not get it.
The movie is sparking a lot of discussion about concussions and NFL changes over the last decade intended to make the sport safer. Initially not receptive to Omalu’s theories, the league has now implemented nearly 40 rule changes, strict concussion protocols, and better sideline medical care, leading to a 34 percent decrease in NFL concussions since the 2012 season. The NFL is also funding research and developing better protective equipment.
Concussion is increasing awareness of chronic traumatic encephalopathy and the dangers of head hits. Many Americans may be getting their first lessons about the danger of permanent brain damage from head hits from the movie.