Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) has been controversial ever since it was first identified. The disease is the centerpiece of the massive “concussion” scandal within the NFL, and a new blockbuster film about the way the league has handled the issue is set to be released on Christmas day.
However, there has always been one assumption that provided some level of comfort about chronic traumatic encephalopathy. The neurodegenerative brain disease has largely been found in professional athletes so it was thought to be largely a “football problem” or a “professional athlete problem.”
A new study suggests that may not be the case.
Researchers from the Mayo Clinic say they have discovered CTE is also showing up disconcertingly frequently in men who participated in high school contact sports.
CTE is a chronic neurodegenerative brain disease linked to repeated brain injuries and is marked by memory loss, aggression, suicidal thoughts, depression, and dementia. Scientists from the Mayo Clinic say approximately one-third of the men who played contact sports and donated their brains to the Mayo Clinic brain bank after death showed signs of CTE.
The most notable cases of CTE have almost entirely been linked to NFL players, including Junior Seau, Terry Long, Frank Gifford, and Mike Webster. But, a new review of clinical records from over 1,700 cases in their brain bank show you don’t have to play in the NFL to develop the disease.
In their analysis of clinical records, the researchers found 66 men who had participated in contact sports during their youth. Of those, nearly a third showed evidence of CTE in post-mortem autopsies. For comparison, the researchers evaluated the brains of 198 people who had no record of participating in contact sports and found none of them showed signs of CTE.
Lead study author Kevin Bieniek, a predoctoral student in the Mayo Graduate School’s Neurobiology of Disease program, tells Yahoo Health that the study was launched after he noticed that a man in the brain bank who had evidence of CTE had played high school football.
While Bieniek calls the findings “surprising,” he also noted that the analysis is too small to make large assumptions.
Bieniek notes that football players had the highest rate of CTE, when compared to other sports. Despite this, Bieniek is hesitant to discourage parents from letting their children participate in contact sports.
“There are so many positive benefits of sports,” he says. “I don’t know that there’s necessarily imminent threats of CTE, but the study is good in that it raises awareness both for scientists and the general public that CTE might be more common than we thought.”