An extended piece in The Atlantic gives rare insight into chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a brain disorder that has historically affected athletes – particularly boxers – but has recently been found in others who have sustained serious head injuries.
Brain traumas, especially chronic injuries sustained in sports, can lead to permanent brain damage.
Surprisingly similar to Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia, CTE is marked by the accumulation of tau proteins in certain regions of the brain. As of now, there is not adequate research to determine why tau accumulates in the brain – or what can be done to stop the proteins from building up after repetitive head injuries.
CTE came on to the public stage with the deaths of former professional football players Tom McHale and Dave Duerson, both of whom were found to have suffered from the disease. The NFL planned a scientific study on repercussions of concussions and head injuries in response to public concern for professional athletes.
So what about kids who play football, hockey, soccer, etc.?
The Atlantic cites new evidence suggesting children are actually less resilient to early brain injuries than was previously understood – and cognitive deficiencies in kids, such as lower IQ, can persist for years after the initial brain injury.
We also know that young athletes who take regular hits to the head can suffer brain injury even if they do not experience a concussion. And ESPN recently reported on a study – Head Impact Exposure in Youth Football – that found second-grade football players who were exposed to head impacts as severe as those seen at the college level.
Perhaps The Atlantic has it right: it will take more cases of CTE and other traumatic brain injuries in professional athletes coming to light for the public to demand that equipment manufacturers and sports organizations will do more to protect the players.
I hope we can do better than that, for the sake of young athletes everywhere.
Image courtesy of brainmaps.org