Growing up as a three-sport athlete, the word “concussion” was often thrown around. However, it never carried much weight. I can recall countless times I sustained, or watched friends or teammates undoubtedly sustain, a concussion. I recall one instance while playing soccer when I was 13, where I jumped into the air to head a ball and smashed heads with an opposing player. As we both collapsed to the ground, the fans watching the game went silent. My coach rushed over to me and asked, “How many fingers am I holding up?” I was able to render a correct guess and was told to get some water and get back into the game. Years later, I experienced another blow to the head. I was told that I had experienced a concussion; the sole medical recommendation was to stop playing, although I would be able to resume the following day. It was always accepted that a short break from play would allow for enough time for full recovery. At no point were there ever any discussions related to the possible detrimental effects of head injuries and concussions later in life
Like many others, I did not realize how serious these concussions could be, even years later. As more research has begun to show the long term detrimental effects of concussions, it has become much more common for professional athletes to miss playing time due to a concussion as new rules have been added to many sports to increase player safety. Further testing has only emphasized the utmost necessity of these changes.
However, despite my intense involvement with many sports, I did not fully understand the effects of concussions until last summer when I stumbled upon an article featuring Dr. Ann McKee, a neuropathologist at the Boston University Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy (CSTE). This article explained how detrimental concussions could be years later; reading it was very eye-opening to me. I have since had the privilege of joining the CSTE in its efforts to learn more about Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) and ensure player safety in every sport and in any place where concussions may occur.
The current research being done at the CSTE aims to better understand the pathology and epidemiology of the disease, and to discover a way to diagnose CTE in living subjects. Currently, CTE can only be diagnosed postmortem. However, symptoms of the degeneration of the brain are known. They include memory loss, confusion, impaired judgment, impulse control, aggression, depression, progressive dementia, and suicidal tendencies. We work to identify the genetic and environmental risk factors that could potentially lead to this disease so that sports can be made safer and a treatment is determined for those currently suffering from CTE.
To help us achieve our goals, over five hundred participants have pledged to donate their brain upon their death to the CSTE’s Brain Donation Registry. This study allows for current and former athletes and military personnel to pledge to donate their brain and spinal cord. By collecting information on these participants and examining their brains posthumously, we will be able to learn more about repetitive brain trauma and the development of CTE. Additionally, the CSTE has over four hundred participants in the Longitudinal Examination to Gather Evidence of Neurodegenerative Disease or LEGEND Study. In this study, participants perform yearly interviews to track the potential development of CTE and identify risk factors beyond repetitive brain trauma. As a Research Intern, I am involved with the collection and analysis of the data from both of these studies. The work that I am doing will hopefully contribute to a diagnosis of CTE during life, which will allow for better regulations and rules to protect the safety of players at all levels of sports. Additionally, I hope that my work at the CSTE will ease some of the pain and suffering of many players and their loved ones years down the road. While many claim that football and many other sports are becoming incomparable versions of their former selves because of the new additional safety measures, these safety measures could have helped many former athletes who have started to become a different person because of concussions. I hope that my work will allow for sports to continue while making sure that the participants in these sports will not feel the effects of these concussions years later.
More information regarding Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy as well as contact information for potential participants can be found at the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy’s website.
Daniel Wigmore, Health Sciences