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Study Finds Early Stage Brain Disorders in Athletes Under 30

By Tom Marino | August 29, 2023
Last Updated: August 29, 2023

A new research paper published in Jama Neurology on Monday by a team of researchers from Boston University and several other Boston-area institutions says their research show that young contact sports athletes may be at risk for long-term neuropathologic disorders, including chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).

According to the Boston University CTE Research Center, CTE “is a progressive degenerative disease of the brain found in people with a history of repetitive head impacts (RHI) often incurred during contact sport play, military service, employment as a first responder, and other activities that involve repeated blows to the head.” CTE can only be definitively diagnosed through examination of the brain after death. Current treatment focuses on the cognitive and behavioral symptoms. There is no treatment for CTE.

According to the paper, researchers were able to diagnose CTE in 41.4 percent of the cases they examined of contact sports athletes under 30 years old at the time of their death. They examined the brains of 152 donors who were contact sports athletes younger than 30 years old at the time of dead. After examination, CTE was diagnosed in 63 donors. Of the 63 confirmed cases of CTE, 60 were diagnoses with mild CTE in stages one or two.

Of the three diagnosed with stage three CTE, one was a former National Football League (NFL) player, one played college football, and one played professional rugby.

Of the 152 donors, 92 (60.5%) played US football as their primary sport. Of those 92 with a positive diagnosis for CTE was reached in 48. Of the 12 donors who played professional football, 11 had CTE. All 11 with CTE had played in the NFL.

Another 37 donors with CTE played amateur football as their primary sport, 21 in college and 16 never playing after high school.

The study also included 16 donors who played ice hockey as their primary sport with six positive CTE diagnosis. The one National Hockey League (NHL) player had stage two CTE. Four amateur players also had CTE.

Four of 23 athletes (17.4%) who played soccer were diagnosed with CTE. Two high school players and a female collegiate player was diagnoses with state one CTE. One semiprofessional players was diagnosed with stage two.

Just 11 donors in the study were female, with a mean age over four years younger than the male donors. The one female donor with a positive diagnoses started playing soccer at 3 years old through three years of Division I collegiate soccer. She had experienced two concussions without loss of consciousness, and at age 24 lost consciousness for three minutes after a traumatic brain injury. She died by suicide at age 28.

The New York Times reported a study in June that examined 631 brains of former NFL players. Of those, 451 (71%) were found to have CTE.

Junior Seau, who played 20 season in the NFL and the 2006 to 2009 seasons with the New England Patriots, died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest on May 2, 2012. Dave Duerson, who played 11 seasons in the NFL, also died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest on Feb. 17, 2011. Both were diagnoses with CTE.

Former New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez hanged himself inside Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center in Lancaster after being convicted of the murder of Odin Lloyd in 2013. Hernandez, who was 27 years old at the time of his death, was diagnosed with stage three CTE after his death. Prior to Hernandez, the youngest person diagnosed with stage three CTE was 46 years old.

The full results of the study is available for free from Jama Neurology.

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