Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disorder that results in dementia and is caused by repeated blows to the head, is again making the news concerning athletes. Four former soccer players in the United Kingdom have been found to have suffered from CTE in post-mortem examinations at the UCL Queen Square Brain Bank.
A study funded by the Drake Foundation, a British non-profit that studies head injuries in sports, examined 14 retired footballers (soccer players) who had dementia before they passed away. All of the ex-players had been patients at the Old Age Psychiatry Service in Swansea, Wales, between 1980 and 2010. Of these 14 patients, permission was obtained from family members of six to conduct post-mortem examinations.
In four of the players, evidence of CTE was found. Additionally, all six of them had brain tissue consistent with that of Alzheimer’s disease. For comparison, the rate of CTE in the general population is 12% so the rate found in the retired athletes far exceeded the norm. CTE and Alzheimer’s both involve abnormal amounts of tau protein in the brain, but in CTE it is the pattern of where and how the protein accumulates that is significant.
Finding CTE in the brains of athletes is not new. A well-known study in the United States found that 96% of retired NFL players examined showed evidence of the disease. The disease is known to occur in professional boxers as well as soldiers who have suffered traumatic brain injuries (TBI) in combat. While American football players are likely getting the disease from very rough tackles and other parts of the game, footballers in the UK have more minor injuries. Helmets are not worn however and soccer players routinely “head” the ball in an effort to score a goal.
Lead author of the study Dr. Helen Ling (UCL Institute of Neurology) who is also a senior research associate at the Department of Molecular Neuroscience and neurologist stated, "This is the first time CTE has been confirmed in a group of retired footballers. Our findings of CTE in retired footballers suggest a potential link between playing football and the development of degenerative brain pathologies in later life. However, it is important to note that we only studied a small number of retired footballers with dementia and that we still do not know how common dementia is among footballers. All of the players whose brain autopsies showed signs of CTE also had Alzheimer's pathology, but the relationship between the two diseases remains unclear. The most pressing research question is therefore to find out if dementia is more common in footballers than in the normal population."
All of the former athletes in the study started playing football early in their lives and the average time spent playing the sport was 26 years. Dementia was diagnosed when these men were in their 60s and 12 out of the 14 eventually died of advanced dementia.
A spokesperson for FIFA, the governing body for international football, stated in a press release, “To our very best knowledge, there is currently no true evidence of the negative effect of heading or other sub-concussive blows. Results from studies on active and former professional football players in relation to brain function are inconclusive. Fortunately, football (soccer) does not belong to the high-risk sports for brain and head injuries." The British study was very small, and researchers hope to be able to complete a larger study. The video below talks more about the results, check it out.