Concussions are an inevitable part of sports. Any time you combine high speed with contact, you increase the risk of brain injury.
Fortunately, concussions are detectable—assuming the athlete accurately reports his or her symptoms—and trainers and doctors can take immediate action to help prevent further injury. However, in the long term, concussions can have much more serious consequences.
Athletes who experience repeated contact to the head during their careers may suffer from Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE). “CTE is a neuro-degenerative brain disease caused by too much trauma to the brain,” explains Chris Nowinski, co-founder and president of the Sports Legacy Institute. “At some threshold, cells start dying. When you lose enough of those cells, your brain doesn’t work as well, and you show symptoms, like memory and emotional problems, behavioral changes and impulse control issues.”
Recently, the suicide of former NFL defensive star Junior Seau was linked to CTE, despite the fact that Seau was never diagnosed with a concussion. Doctors didn't even consider that he could have been suffering from this insidious disease.
The problem is that CTE is only detectable during an autopsy. If doctors had identified CTE as the root of Seau’s problem, they could have implemented measures to prevent his tragic end.
Fortunately, new research conducted at UCLA may have discovered a way to detect signs of CTE in living athletes.
UCLA researchers injected five former NFL athletes who experience symptoms of CTE with a radioactive marker, then used a scan called positron emission tomography (PET). The scans consistently identified the presence of tau protein, which is present in brains afflicted by CTE.
Early CTE detection has huge implications for athletes' long-term brain health. Doctors may some day use the technique to test athletes and identify those who are at risk. Athletes can then take action to reduce the risk of further brain damage, improving their chance of living a quality life.
Although the study is a significant breakthrough, more research is needed to accurately correlate PET scan results to CTE. Yet some day, this method might be widely used to diagnose CTE and help athletes like Seau avoid the long-term effects of brain trauma.