Study shows link between playing football and neurodegenerative disease

You’ll likely hear quite a bit this week about a new study that suggests football players have an increased risk of developing chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, which is a progressive degenerative brain disease associated with repetitive head trauma.

As reported today in JAMA, researchers from the Boston University CTE Center and the VA Boston Healthcare System found pathological evidence of CTE in 177 of the 202 former football players whose brains were donated for research — including 117 of the 119 who played professionally in the United States or Canada. Their study nearly doubles the number of CTE cases described in literature.

The co-first author, Daniel Daneshvar, MD, PhD, is a new resident at Stanford in the orthopaedic surgery’s physical medicine and rehabilitation program, which treats traumatic brain injury and sports injury patients. He recently spoke with me about the study that he participated in while at BU.

“I really enjoyed playing football in high school. I think it’s an important sport for team building, learning leadership and gaining maturity,” he explained. “That being said, I think this study provides evidence of a relationship between playing football and developing a neurodegenerative disease. And that is very concerning, since we have kids as young as 8 years old potentially subjecting themselves to risk of this disease.”

The researchers studied the donated brains of deceased former football players who played in high school, college and the pros. They diagnosed CTE based on criteria recently defined by the National Institutes of Health. Currently, CTE can only be confirmed postmortem.

The study found evidence of mild CTE in three of the 14 former high school players and severe CTE in the majority of former college, semiprofessional and professional players. However, the researchers are quick to acknowledge that their sample is skewed, because brain bank donors don’t represent the overall population of former football players. Daneshvar explained:

“The number of NFL players with CTE is certainly less than the 99 percent that we’re reporting here, based on the fact that we have a biased sample. But the fact that 110 out of the 111 NFL players in our group had CTE means that this is in no way a small problem amongst NFL players.”

The research team also performed retrospective clinical evaluations, speaking with the players’ loved ones to learn their athletic histories and disease symptoms. Daneshvar worked on this clinical component — helping to design the study, organize the brain donations, conduct the interviews and analyze the data. The clinical assessment and pathology teams worked independently, blind to each other’s results.

“It’s difficult to determine after people have passed away exactly what symptoms they initially presented with and what their disease course was,” he told me. “We developed a novel mechanism for this comprehensive, retrospective clinical assessment. I was one of the people doing the phone interviews with the participant’s family members and friends to assess cognitive, behavioral, mood and motor symptoms.”

At this point, there aren’t any clinical diagnosis criteria for CTE, Daneshvar said. Although the current study wasn’t designed to establish these criteria, the researchers are going to use this data to correlate the clinical symptoms that a patient suffers through in life and their pathology at time of death, Daneshvar said. He went on to explain:

“The important thing about this study is that it isn’t just characterizing disease in this population. It’s about learning as much as we can from this methodologically rigorous cohort going forward, so we can begin to apply the knowledge that we’ve gained to help living athletes.”

Daneshvar and his colleagues are already working on a new study to better understand the prevalence and incidence of CTE in the overall population of football players. And they have begun to investigate what types of risk factors affect the likelihood of developing CTE.

This is a reposting of my Scope blog story, courtesy of Stanford School of Medicine.

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