Not Concussions: Scientists Unveil Real Drivers of CTE in Football

Two Football Players Colliding

The largest study of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in football players to date has found that the risk of CTE is not driven by the number of diagnosed concussions, but rather by the cumulative number and intensity of head impacts. The study, utilizing a novel tool called a positional exposure matrix (PEM), suggests that reducing both the frequency and force of head impacts in practice and games could lower the odds of athletes developing CTE.

Scientists from Mass General Brigham and Boston University have developed a new tool that has created the first-ever playbook to prevent chronic traumatic encephalopathy.

Does the quantity of concussions sustained by a football player increase their likelihood of developing Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE)? In the most comprehensive study of CTE conducted yet, which examined 631 deceased football players, scientists discovered that the number of diagnosed concussions alone was not associated with CTE risk.

Instead, the chance of a football player developing CTE was found to be connected to both how many head impacts they received and how hard the head impacts were.

The study, conducted by researchers at Mass General Brigham, Harvard Medical School, and Boston University (BU), was published today in Nature Communications.

It used an innovative new tool called a positional exposure matrix (PEM) that synthesized data from 34 independent studies to estimate the number and severity of football players’ head impacts over their careers.

“These results provide added evidence that repeated non-concussive head injuries are a major driver of CTE pathology rather than symptomatic concussions, as the medical and lay literature often suggests,” said study senior author Jesse Mez, MD, MS, Associate Professor at the BU Chobanian and Avedisian School of Medicine and Co-Director of Clinical Research at the BU CTE Center.

The new data could provide football with a playbook to prevent CTE in current and future players, according to researchers.

“This study suggests that we could reduce CTE risk through changes to how football players practice and play,” said study lead author Dan Daneshvar, MD, PhD, Assistant Professor at Harvard Medical School and Physician at Mass General Brigham affiliate Spaulding Rehabilitation. “If we cut both the number of head impacts and the force of those hits in practice and games, we could lower the odds that athletes develop CTE.”

The researchers used the new PEM tool to estimate the cumulative number of head impacts, and the cumulative linear and rotational accelerations associated with those impacts, based on the levels and positions athletes played throughout their football career.

The study found that cumulative repetitive head impact (RHI) exposure was associated with CTE status, CTE severity, and pathologic burden in the football players. Additionally, the study found that models using the intensity of impacts were better at predicting CTE status and severity than models using duration of play or number of hits to the head alone.

The PEM is a valuable tool that researchers can utilize to improve studies on risks of football play. By using the PEM in future studies, researchers could look at other potential effects of RHI exposure beyond CTE to gain a better understanding of the specific types of RHI that are most likely to cause these problems.

“Although this study was limited to football players, it also provides insight into the impact characteristics most responsible for CTE pathology outside of football, because your brain doesn’t care what hits it,” said Daneshvar. “The finding that estimated lifetime force was related to CTE in football players likely holds true for other contact sports, military exposure, or domestic violence.”

A limitation of the study is that it utilized a convenience sample of football-playing brain donors who tended to have higher exposure to RHI than the general population of football players. However, a substantial number of donors had lower exposures, so the findings can still be extrapolated to most football players.

Reference: “Leveraging football accelerometer data to quantify associations between repetitive head impacts and chronic traumatic encephalopathy in males” by Daniel H. Daneshvar, Evan S. Nair, Zachary H. Baucom, Abigail Rasch, Bobak Abdolmohammadi, Madeline Uretsky, Nicole Saltiel, Arsal Shah, Johnny Jarnagin, Christine M. Baugh, Brett M. Martin, Joseph N. Palmisano, Jonathan D. Cherry, Victor E. Alvarez, Bertrand R. Huber, Jennifer Weuve, Christopher J. Nowinski, Robert C. Cantu, Ross D. Zafonte, Brigid Dwyer, John F. Crary, Lee E. Goldstein, Neil W. Kowall, Douglas I. Katz, Robert A. Stern, Yorghos Tripodis, Thor D. Stein, Michael D. McClean, Michael L. Alosco, Ann C. McKee and Jesse Mez, 20 June 2023, Nature Communications.
DOI: 10.1038/s41467-023-39183-0

The study was supported by grants and funding from the National Institutes of Health, Department of Veterans Affairs, Department of Defense, the Alzheimer’s Association, the Nick and Lynn Buoniconti Foundation, the Concussion Legacy Foundation, the Adlinger Foundation, World Wrestling Entertainment Inc.

2 Comments on "Not Concussions: Scientists Unveil Real Drivers of CTE in Football"

  1. We could stop CTE if we fundamentally change how the game is played.

    NO S*** SHERLOCK but then it would not be “football” anymore, would it?

  2. Zubenelgenubi | July 5, 2023 at 4:23 pm | Reply

    “The finding that estimated lifetime force was related to CTE in football players likely holds true for other contact sports, military exposure, or domestic violence.”
    OR, the number and severity of accidents, especially those severe head traumas, i.e. loss of consciousness, in children!

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