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What is CTE? What You Need to Know about Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy

What is CTE?

Chronic traumatic encephalopathy, otherwise known as CTE, is categorized as a neurodegenerative condition resulting from continuous trauma to the head. This disease can cause mood changes, mental impairment, learning disabilities, and memory loss. It is commonly the result of intense physical activities, military service, and professional sports. The disease has become a heavily debated media topic in recent years and there is still much that researchers are learning about the nature of the condition. While medical professionals can identify common symptoms of CTE, a diagnosis cannot be confirmed using MRIs or traditional testing. The disease can only be fully diagnosed after a patient’s death. 

History of CTE

Before CTE became a widely recognized condition, there wasn’t a legitimate term to describe the phenomena. One of the first formal recognitions of this in the medical community came from Dr. Harrison S. Martland in 1928 when he established the term “punch drunk” to describe the mental condition of boxers after repeated head injuries.

In the early 2000s, the condition emerged in the public eye due to the ground breaking research of Dr. Bennet Omalu, who began his work while investigating the sudden death of Mike Webster, a hall of fame player from the Pittsburg Steelers. After extensive analysis, he found signs of brain trauma that weren’t visible in MRIs and established a crucial link between Webster’s history of head injuries and his death. Dr. Omalu’s research, though initially met with criticism and disdain from the public, played a critical role in bringing widespread attention to CTE. 

How is it Diagnosed? 

There are currently no medical tests in existence that can diagnose a patient with CTE during their lifetime. Much of what the medical community currently knows about CTE is the result of testing performed on the brains of deceased football athletes who have donated their organs to the medical community for research. In a study released by Boston University, findings revealed that 110 out of 111 football players who donated were diagnosed with the condition. 


CTE is marked by the expansion of the Tau protein throughout the brain. In a normal person, this protein supports brain functionality, but in individuals suffering from CTE, the protein begins to spread in clumps erratically, causing a host of cognitive impairments. These include confusion, headaches, issues with impulse control and substance abuse, loss of memory, depression, anxiety, aggression, and even suicidal tendencies. Overtime this may even culminate into a form of progressive dementia. There is no set time for when these symptoms may appear. In some cases, signs of CTE can emerge many years after the individual last experienced a head injury.  


Although CTE cannot be properly diagnosed during a patient’s lifetime and research is still being performed to establish new therapies to treat the condition, there are some therapies and lifestyle changes that may improve some of the debilitating effects of the disease. Healthy sleep habits, nutritional diets, and regular exercise are shown to have some positive effects on the mental well being of patients. Medical professionals also often recommend memory exercises and behavioral therapy to cope with mental instability and cognitive impairment. Mitigating risks for brain injury by avoiding intense physical activities and contact sports is critical to prevent further damage.

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