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Brain damage linked to contact sports

4th December 2012

Researchers in the United States say they have found fresh evidence of a link between repeated blows to the head and long-term brain disease.

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The findings, published in the journal Brain, are the latest in a pile of growing evidence suggesting that athletes, players of contact sports and military veterans, among others who may sustain repeated hits to the head, may be at risk of brain degeneration.

The study looked at brain samples taken posthumously from 85 people who had histories of repeated mild traumatic brain injury.

It addresses the potential consequences of repeated, mild head trauma. Fears that such trauma could be linked with cognitive impairment have been hotly debated among parents, athletes, sports officials and healthcare professionals in recent years.

The study, carried out by researchers at the Boston University Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy and the Veterans Affairs Boston Healthcare System, found that 68 of the 85 people - almost all of whom had led very athletic lives - showed evidence of a brain disease called chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).

CTE is an incurable, degenerative brain disease which can lead to memory loss, depression and dementia.

The study subjects included deceased American football stars like Dave Duerson, Cookie Gilchrist and John Mackey.

Fifty of the group were American football players, with 33 having played the game at nation level. They also included players who had played in positions with more tackling, like linemen and running backs.

Among the study subjects whose brain matter was analysed were six high-school football players, and nine college players, as well as seven professional boxers.

Also showing signs of CTE were 21 military veterans, many of whom were also athletes.

Working together with the Sports Legacy Institute, the researchers analysed brain samples from the subjects, who had been aged from 17-98 years old, over a period of four years.

According to study main author Ann McKee, the researchers were able to see the disease at all stages of severity, giving an insight into the mechanism of the injury.

McKee, a professor of neurology and pathology at Boston University School of Medicine, together with her colleagues, classified the stages of the disease in three ways.

State 1 CTE is linked to headaches and loss of attention and concentration, while stage 2 sufferers reported explosive behaviour and short-term memory loss.

Stage 3 of the disease was linked to problems thinking clearly, including with planning and organising, while stage 4 was associated with dementia, problems finding the right word, and aggression.

However, the study proved no causal link between the head injuries sustained on the field of play and the progression of CTE.

Further research will be needed in living patients, who can be studied with blood tests, imaging techniques and other methods.

It is unclear why some athletes were subjected to the same trauma but did not develop CTE.

According to study co-author Chris Nowinski, it is very hard to estimate from the current study what proportion of the US population could be affected by CTE.

Nowinski, a co-director of the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy at Boston University School of Medicine, said that researchers were able to use brain tissue of deceased athletes because their families had noticed symptoms when they were alive.

However, the link between years of head trauma and CTE now seems clear in the wake of the current study.

 


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