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What Are the Symptoms of CTE?

Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) is brain degeneration that is likely caused by repeated head trauma. Unfortunately, CTE can only be diagnosed through an autopsy after a person passes away by studying various sections of the brain. This is a rare disorder that is not fully understood yet, but recent studies and significant media attention surrounding professional athletes and CTE have brought this disease to light. 

How Will CTE Manifest While a Person is Alive?

CTE is a rare disorder, and the reality is that most individuals who do not regularly sustain head injuries will likely not develop CTE. However, since so much is still unknown about this disease, it is imperative not to put absolutes on anything discussed until science gains a better understanding of the causes and treatment.

In general, CTE has been found in the brains of individuals who play contact sports, including football, boxing, rugby, and other sports that result in strong blows to the body or head. The Mayo Clinic says that signs and symptoms of CTE may also be found in military personnel who were exposed to blast injuries. CTE is thought to develop years to decades after the initial head trauma occurs.

Currently, there is no direct and accurate list of the signs and symptoms associated with CTE. Right now, doctors and scientists simply speculate based on what they know about those who have been diagnosed with CTE after death, as well as information about their lives before their death.

Individuals may experience cognitive impairment, which can include difficulty thinking, memory loss, and problems with organization, carrying out specific tasks, and planning. CTE sufferers may also sustain behavioral changes, which can include impulsive behavior and aggression.

The Mayo Clinic states that individuals with CTE may also experience depression, emotional instability, substance abuse issues, as well as suicidal thoughts or behavior.

There is a chance that CTE can cause motor neuron disease and Parkinsonism, which can significantly affect a person’s ability to control their body.

Doctors speculate that the signs and symptoms of CTE may appear in two stages, first happening when a person is in their 20s or 30s. This first time frame will be characterized by changes in mental health, which can lead to substance abuse and suicidal thoughts or behaviors. The second form of CTE is thought to occur around age 60 and includes memory loss and further cognitive decline that could progress into dementia.

How Common is CTE?

A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) indicates that they found CTE in 99% of the brains obtained from NFL players, in 91% of college football players, and in 21% of high school football players.

“The data suggest that there is very likely a relationship between exposure to football and risk of developing the disease,” says Jesse Mez, a Boston University assistant professor of neurology.

There are several limitations to this study, though, in that the brains that they collect are from individuals already very highly likely to suffer from CTE. There has been no widespread study related to CTE exposure of individual brains outside of the sports industry.