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Head Trauma, Junior Seau’s Brain, and Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy: Spot Light on Brain Disease

10 Jan

Contact Sports, Head Injury, and CTE: Get the Facts

This morning, post-mortem reports were released from the study of former San Diego Charger’s linebacker Junior Seau’s brain.   I live in San Diego so it was no surprise when I woke this morning to news stories about a progressive disease found in his brain, chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), when he committed suicide this past year.  CTE has been linked with repeated head trauma, multiple concussions, and blast/explosion exposure.

CTE Brain

On the top row, notice the decrease in the amount of actual brain tissue.   The bottom row shows the build-up of tau protein in the brain.

There are so many cultural and non-brain related issues flying around that it feels like we are losing some key points.   It is, especially in the wake of these kinds of findings, really important to get the facts about what happens with brain diseases of this nature, what causes them, who is vulnerable, warning signs, and what to do about all of this.

CTE is a degenerative brain condition that, to date, has been found in the brains of people who have sustained repeated concussions or exposed to explosions – historically, boxers and military personnel but more recently football and hockey players.  Blows to the head start in motion a progressive deterioration of brain tissue and a build-up of a particular protein also found in the brains of Alzheimer’s sufferers, tau protein.   Accurate diagnosis, at least at this stage, is completely invasive and can’t be done on living people without destroying portions of the brain.  With that in mind and the diagnostic tools readily available, we can only make educated guesses about whether someone is suffering from CTE based on the number of head traumas an individual suffers and manifestation of symptoms believed to be associated with the condition.   These symptoms include behaviors very similar to those found with Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s Diseases – confusion, lack of attention, personality changes, inability to figure things out, memory issues, slowed movements, balance and gait problems, motor control (shaking or involuntary movements), speech problems, erratic behavior, and even psychosis.

It seems silly and redundant to say this but those who are in a position where they will get hit in the head without proper protection (whatever that might be), over and over, or will be likely to be in the direct line of an explosion are most vulnerable to setting the devastating progression of CTE in motion.

The media is all buzzing about the evils of playing contact sports.  The important thing to keep in mind is that CTE is associated with multiple concussions and repeated head trauma.  That means that identifying the first concussion is the key to heading off this condition.   Know what a concussion looks like.   Don’t ignore it, play it off as minor, or buy in to the commonly held notion that a concussion is just something that will pass and you just need to get over it.   We now know that head trauma has a cumulative, lasting impact on the brain and the brain’s ability to recover.   Reducing risk means reducing exposure, however that might happen.

The Mayo Clinic has a great section on identifying the signs and symptoms of concussion.   Here is a piece from their online resources.

Signs and symptoms of a concussion may include:

  • Headache or a feeling of pressure in the head
  • Temporary loss of consciousness
  • Confusion or feeling as if in a fog
  • Amnesia surrounding the traumatic event
  • Dizziness or “seeing stars”
  • Ringing in the ears
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Slurred speech
  • Fatigue

Some symptoms of concussions may be immediate or delayed in onset by hours or days after injury:

  • Concentration and memory complaints
  • Irritability and other personality changes
  • Sensitivity to light and noise
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Psychological adjustment problems and depression
  • Disorders of taste and smell

Taken from Mayo Clinic:

Learn more about CTE and the current research being done at Boston University.

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