Out of 91 deceased former NFL players, 87 have been found to have a neurodegenerative brain disease known as chronic traumatic brain injury (CTE), according to new data from the nation’s largest brain bank devoted to the study of traumatic brain injury.
CTE has been at the heart of the controversy surrounding how the National Football League has handled traumatic brain injury treatment and education in light of medical findings showing the risk of repeated brain injuries.
The NFL has often dismissed the severity of the permanent brain disease and its prominence, but the new data shows the problem may be even larger than previously thought.
“People think that we’re blowing this out of proportion, that this is a very rare disease and that we’re sensationalizing it,” Dr. Ann McKee, chief of neurophysiology at the VA Boston Healthcare System and director of the lab where the tests were conducted, told PBS’ “Frontline”. “My response is that where I sit, this is a very real disease. We have had no problem identifying it in hundreds of players.”
Of the players who tested positive for CTE by the Department of Veteran Affairs and Boston University, approximately 40% held offensive or defensive linemen positions. This finding is particularly interesting because linemen do not often receive the types of big hits associated with concussions, but there is a growing belief the constant collisions they experience may be putting them at risk for long-term brain injury.
The researchers also noted that out of 79% of those tested in the study, 79% participated in football as far back as their high school years.
Currently, CTE can only be definitively diagnosed postmortem during autopsy analysis, though researchers have identified several potential biomarkers that may help diagnose the condition in living individuals.
The condition gained a large amount of attention after the brain of Junior Seau, a former linebacker who committed suicide in 2012, tested positive for CTE.
The NFL issued a statement to “Frontline”, saying: “We are dedicated to making football safer and continue to take steps to protect players, including rule changes, advanced sideline technology, and expanded medical resources. We continue to make significant investments in independent research through our gifts to Boston University, the [National Institutes of Health] and other efforts to accelerate the science and understanding of these issues.”