According to PBS’s Frontline, an ongoing joint study by the Department of Veterans Affairs and Boston University has found CTE in 87 of 91 examined brains of former NFL players, bringing the Boston lab’s total to 131 of 165 of former football players at all levels.
This news is an occasional update out of Boston University’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, the brain disease thought to stem from football players hitting each other repeatedly in the brain. As usual, the data here are highly self-selected. Frontline says “many” of the players who donated their brains believed they had CTE, meaning they showed or believed they showed symptoms resembling early onset dementia, making this more akin to proof that if you both played professional football and believe you’re suffering from cognitive degeneration, there’s a good chance your brain will show signs of CTE, or other brain diseases. (The specific patterns of tau tangle distribution to qualify as “CTE” are distinct from distributions found in ALS or Alzheimer’s, but changeable enough that there’s been some question about whether it’s a discrete pathology or a form of previously known diseases.) This release also doesn’t mention participant age or the severity of symptoms, though presumably (hopefully?) the study itself will.
Putting aside weaknesses of the individual studies, this is at least further scientific record of the ramifications of playing football. Even among the self-selected group, patterns emerge that reflect what’s believed to cause CTE. For example, 40 percent of the 87 brains diagnosed with the disease were from linemen, who run up at least one sub-concussive impact per snap.
But at this point, labs like Boston University’s have proven nearly all there is to prove with this type of study. We’re nearly a decade into taking this branch of science seriously, and there are still precious few true longitudinal studies to examine the progression of impact or combat sports on CTE and its progression—the best-envisioned, a multi-year look at boxers and MMA fighters of various ages, doesn’t even involve football. That still comes next. For now, we have these occasional missives from the front, totaling the grisly end of the game.
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