Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease found in athletes and military veterans, is caused by repetitive blows to the head (not necessarily concussions) sustained over a number of years.
As CTE progresses, the patient may experience memory loss, confusion and dementia. They have trouble controlling their impulses. They become aggressive, depressed and paranoid.
Currently, CTE cannot be diagnosed until after death. Brain specialists look for clumps of a protein called tau, which in life spread throughout the brain and killed off brain cells.
As we learn more about CTE, we are better able to recognize signs of the disease in living patients.
There is one common thread among CTE patients: repeated head trauma (subconcussive head trauma, concussions and traumatic brain injuries). People who develop CTE have a history of blows to the head — football players, soccer players, lacrosse players, boxers, cheerleaders, military veterans and domestic violence victims.
You don’t have to be active in sports to sustain repeated blows to the head over time, though the risk is greater for people who play high-contact sports.
This repeated head trauma does not include the occasional bumps children take in early childhood, such as falling while learning to walk, or people who have had one concussion or blow to the head.
One brain injury is bad enough. When we experience any type of traumatic brain injury, like a concussion, it’s hard for our brain to heal and regain normal function. After a concussion, you may feel like you’re moving slowly, and have difficulty thinking clearly, concentrating and remembering new information.
Typically appearing in a person’s late 20s and early 30s, the symptoms of CTE include:
The symptoms can mimic Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease, which makes a specific diagnosis challenging. Researchers are also looking into how other potential risk factors, such as genetics, environment or lifestyle, contribute.
There is no cure or treatment for CTE, though the symptoms are treatable. Talk to your doctor about your symptoms. They may not be related to CTE.
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