Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy is a degenerative brain disease found in athletes, military veterans, and others with a history of repetitive brain trauma. Evidence indicates CTE is caused by repetitive hits to the head sustained over a period of years. While concussions are a factor, the best available evidence points towards sub-concussive impacts, or hits to the head that don’t cause full-blown concussions, as the biggest factor.
In CTE, a protein called Tau forms clumps that slowly spread throughout the brain, killing brain cells. CTE has been seen in people as young as 17, but symptoms do not generally begin appearing until years after the onset of head impacts. These early symptoms usually appear in a patient’s late 20s or 30s, and affect a patient’s mood and behavior. Common changes include impulse control problems, aggression, depression, and paranoia.
As the disease progresses, patients may experience problems with thinking and memory, including memory loss, confusion, impaired judgment, and eventually progressive dementia. Cognitive symptoms tend to appear later than mood and behavioral symptoms, and generally first appear in a patient’s 40s or 50s. Patients may exhibit one or both symptom clusters. In some cases, symptoms worsen with time (even if the patient suffers no additional head impacts). In other cases, symptoms may be stable for years before worsening.
Pictured above is Kevin Turner, a former New England Patriots and Philadelphia Eagles fullback who died two years ago at age 46, following a long battle with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis brought on by CTE. He was the lead plaintiff in the class-action lawsuit brought by former football players against the NFL over its handling of concussions.
CTE has no cure.