Medical experts weigh in on latest CTE research

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NFL: Detroit Lions at Indianapolis Colts
Sep 11, 2016; Indianapolis, IN, USA; A view of the Detroit Lions logo on a helmet on the sidelines during a game against the Indianapolis Colts at Lucas Oil Stadium. The Lions won 39-35. Mandatory Credit: Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

A study published recently has drawn attention to the extremely high instance of CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) in football players. The study, led by Dr. Ann McKee, investigated signs of CTE in the donated brains of deceased people who had participated in football. Among the 111 brains investigated that were from former NFL players, 110 (99%) of them showed signs of CTE.

Dr. McKee had this to say about the findings:

“We’re seeing this [CTE] in a very large number that participated in football for many years. So while we don’t know the exact risk and we don’t know the exact number, we know this is a problem in football.”

Other scientists are beginning to comment on the study as well. Dr. Elizabeth Sandel has specialized in caring for patients with brain injuries for more than 30 years and is board-certified in physical medicine and rehabilitation and brain injury medicine (BIM).

Dr. Sandel finds the research to be important. She is also looking forward to more research into how gender may impact concussions.

“Important study for sure. There are the unanswered questions about children and youth playing football, soccer, other collision sports. And women playing the same sports as men. (Greater rates of concussion for girls and women in these sports).
The lack of research focused on women and children in sports must be addressed, but there seems to be relatively very little funding for that.”
A graduate of Harvard Medical School, Dr. Jon Lieff has spent more than three decades exploring the mind and how it functions in both humans and nature. Both Dr. Lieff and Dr. Sandel have been featured in exclusive interviews with Detroit Sports Nation regarding concussions. You can find those here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.
When reached for comment on this particular story, Dr. Lieff cautioned that the research does not indicate how prevalent CTE is among all participants in football. Dr. Lieff also expressed concern for children at risk of brain injury.
“I’m not sure what to say about it other than the fact there is a lot of CTE. It was not done in a way where a real percentage can be obtained for the general population of football players. In my previous conversations with him, I emphasized that minors who cannot judge the risks should not be playing for the benefit of schools. Adults who judge the risks have a right to expose them themselves to apparent danger.” 

Dr. McKee also cautioned that this study only researched brains of players who were showed symptoms of CTE during their lifetime. While we should be careful about applying this data across the full spectrum of football participants, she does feel there is an issue.

“We’re seeing this [CTE] in a very large number that participated in football for many years. So while we don’t know the exact risk and we don’t know the exact number, we know this is a problem in football.”

Dr. Mark MacLaughlin, a neurosurgeon and former NCAA wrestler is also taking a cautionary approach.

“The results of the JAMA study published earlier this week regarding CTE and NFL football players is troubling and provocative. No doubt, we must strive to make football and other collision sports safer. But let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Youth, high school, and collegiate sports, including football, when taught and played responsibly are still safe for the brain, spine, and body. And they’re great for the mind. Athletics are an integral part of the education of young men and women. Sports at all levels instill lessons of resiliency, teamwork, and ethics.  These valuable lessons amplify and underscore a scholar athlete’s education. This study should inspire head injury researchers, sports thought leaders, and coaches to vigorously pursue groundbreaking and novel approaches to protect athletes.”

No doubt this issue and research will continue to promote quality conversation about the safety of contact sports.

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