TORONTO – American researchers studying a brain disease found in football and hockey players suggest that there are two distinct ways the illness first affects its victims.
After examining the brains of athletes diagnosed with the disease post-mortem and interviewing their family members, scientists at Boston University say they’ve noted a trend of behaviour or memory problems as the first surfacing symptoms.
The researchers’ findings provide a snapshot of life with CTE, at its onset and as it progresses into later years of life.
Scientists studying brain trauma in athletes are zeroing in on chronic traumatic encephalopathy – or CTE – a condition that has played a role in the deaths of some former NHL players.
Previous research has suggested that professional athletes who are exposed to repetitive brain injuries and concussions may develop the degenerative condition. It’s been linked to amateur and professional athletes, members of the military and others who faced concussions or repeated head injuries.
Earlier this year, the disease was linked to the death of Pro Bowl linebacker Junior Seau. He fatally shot himself last year.
Meanwhile, reports pointed to CTE in other players’ deaths in the past, such as Dave Duerson, Ray Easterling and Shane Dronett.
Outside of the NFL, CTE has also been named as an issue in the deaths of hockey players Derek Boogaard and Bob Probert.
The latest research out of Boston University, published Wednesday in the journal Neurology, is reportedly the “largest study to date” of CTE and autopsy-confirmed cases of the disease.
Led by Dr. Robert Stern, scientists looked at the brains of 36 male athletes between 17 and 98 years old. They were all diagnosed with CTE after death and had no other brain illnesses, like Alzheimer’s.
Most were football players, but some subjects played hockey, wrestling or boxing.
The victims’ family members were also interviewed about the athletes’ lives and medical history, how they coped with thinking, memory, mood swings and other motor skills in every day tasks.
Twenty-two of the men had behaviour and mood problems as their first symptoms at the onset of CTE, while 11 of the men had memory and thinking problems.
The group that grappled with mood issues tended to be younger, at about 35 years old on average. They were “explosive, out of control, physically and verbally violent and depressed” compared to the group that dealt with memory and thinking problems.
Cognitive problems began to seep into their livelihoods at around 59 years old, on average.
Only three of the men didn’t present any symptoms of CTE at the time of their deaths.
“This study points to the fact that in people who have suffered very severe types of changes in the brain, if we look at how they’ve been in life, when they were younger they had behaviour and mood and depression issues. Then as they got older in life, they have memory and thinking problems,” Dr. Russman, a neurologist with Cleveland Clinic, said.
He didn’t take part in the study but specializes in sports health. He suggested the findings could help current and future athletes get the care they need before it’s too late.
“We need to be able to make this diagnosis while people are alive, while people have function so we can identify what their future risk is and offer them services, offer them care, rehabilitation that may help them to function better later in life.”
Stern said the findings, so far, need to be taken with caution. This is because the research didn’t have a comparison group with former athletes who didn’t have CTE. Families taking part in the study may have been more likely to witness their loved ones acting out more so than those who wouldn’t participate, too.
In older patients, it may be too difficult to differentiate between dementia and CTE – the symptoms are similar to conditions like Alzheimer’s.
Other symptoms of CTE include suicidal behaviour, confusion, progressive dementia and personality changes.
The NFL and its athletes’ long-term injuries have been in the spotlight in recent years. In response, the union representing the National Football League’s players handed Harvard University $100 million to study health problems in current and retired athletes.
That funding will span a decade as Harvard Medical School researchers examine a string of health concerns football players are at risk of, from head trauma, heart problems, diabetes and mental health issues.