New data indicates the ever present danger of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in contact sports such as boxing, mixed martial arts (MMA), football, ice-hockey and even soccer. Contrary to popular belief it is now felt that it is just not concussive injuries but even sub-concussive injuries which can predispose an athlete to CTE. This may be of importance to a soccer player who repeatedly heads the ball during play. There are other questions for which we still do not have a good answer.
1. How many concussions are needed and how severe they need to be for CTE to develop? Is there a limit beyond which the brain loses its capacity to compensate for chronic trauma and signs and symptoms of CTE appear? If so what is this limit? Can it be defined? If a player stops playing before this limit is reached would CTE be aborted?
2. Once CTE develops can it be reversed?
3. Is there a way to protect the brain from developing CTE apart from changing the way the games are played. Changing the rules of the game (such as avoiding head butts during football, heading the ball in soccer, direct blows to the head in MMA, wearing safety gear/helmets) shall certainly help but are there other neuroprotective strategies such as medicines (antioxidants, anti-inflammatory drugs) which can be given to prevent the onset and progression of CTE?
As you can see there are many questions for which we still lack good answers. Making the games we play safer certainly sounds a logical principle and hence the thrust to identify concussions in a timely fashion on the playing field and rest the player till complete recovery is documented. Neurologists, neurosurgeons and other physicians skilled in neurosciences by virtue of their training are better equipped to identify concussions and thus there is a growing call to have them by the side of the playing field in every professional and now even college level game. Biomakers and imaging markers to identify CTE in the living brain are also been explored.
Till more is known about CTE and more importantly on how to prevent and reverse it, making the games we love and play safer should be the goal.
Nitin K Sethi, MD