By On October 17th, 2016

What Is Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy?

CTE Models

If you’ve heard about the “concussion crisis” in the NFL or the long-term risks of traumatic brain injury, you’ve likely heard of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). It is the boogeyman that has been linked to high-profile suicides like Junior Seau and was highlighted in the film “Concussion.”

But, what actually is CTE? Despite being in the news all the time, many might not actually fully understand what the long-term degenerative brain disease is or how it is linked to traumatic brain injuries.

Chronic traumatic encephalopathy is a disease caused by repeated brain trauma. It is believed that when the brain experiences trauma like what occurs when a person sustains a concussion, the brain responds with inflammation and swelling. This inflammation is associated with the breakdown of a protein called tau within the axons of neurons.

Following trauma, these tau proteins are “activated,” signaling for cellular destruction and eventually depositing along blood vessels in the brain. Over time, the activated tau proteins erode neuronal axons essential for carrying “messages” or signals throughout the brain.


The most common symptoms of CTE are memory loss, behavioral problems, loss of motor functions, speech issues, and other cognitive deficits. The condition is believed to be permanent and untreatable, however, specific symptoms may be relieved with rehabilitation.

“Right now, because we are not able to diagnose in living people we are not really able to understand exactly what our therapies are doing,” Dr. Robert Cantu recently told the Jasper County Sun Times. Cantu is a Boston University Professor of Neurology as well as the medical director for the National Center for Catastrophic Sports Industry Research in Chapel Hill, N.C. Dr. Cantu is also considered one of the foremost experts on CTE.

Chronic traumatic encephalopathy is often thought to be only linked to repeated concussions or traumatic brain injuries, but recent research suggests even small, “sub-concussive” hits can accumulate within the brain and contribute to the development of CTE.

Image courtesy of NYmag.com

Image courtesy of NYmag.com

It is hard to gauge exactly how common CTE is in athletics or the general population because it can only be diagnosed after death, in an autopsy. However, efforts to determine how prevalent CTE is in athletes have had worrying results.

Of 189 brains of former football players donated to Boston University’s CTE Center, 157 showed evidence of CTE. The higher the level of competition, the more likely the person was to be diagnosed with CTE post-mortem.

While football has received the most attention for the high number of players being diagnosed with CTE, you don’t have to be a linebacker to be at risk. Repetitive head trauma of all kinds can cause the brain disease, and evidence of the condition have been found in those who experienced domestic violence and even individuals with severe epilepsy.

All concussions are serious injuries with often debilitating symptoms, but the majority fade away with weeks of the injury. When a person experiences brain trauma too frequently however, it can lead to the development of CTE which can be devastating and leave a permanent impact on a person’s life.

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