CTE: Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy

Sorting out the facts from the media frenzy

CTE stands for Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy. Let’s break that down, shall we? “Chronic” means persisting or recurring, “Traumatic” denotes physical injury, and “Encephalopathy” refers to a process that affects the functioning of the brain. So, CTE is a persistent, brain-related process related to physical injury.

CTE has been given an overwhelming amount of media attention after some medical research has suggested CTE is the result of concussions or repeated hits to the heads of athletes. However, much of the reporting has contained inaccurate information.

Here are the facts regarding what science knows about CTE:

FACT 1: CTE is a syndrome of abnormal changes in brain cells. These abnormal cells are called “hyperphosphorylated tau proteins.” The presence of these cells may or may not be accompanied by changes or problems in thinking, behavior, and mood.

FACT 2: The brain cell abnormalities found in patients with CTE are not unique to CTE. These abnormalities are often found in individuals with other neurological conditions.

FACT 3: CTE occurs in varying stages. The more significant stages appear to differ from other neurological conditions with similar symptoms, such as Alzheimer’s disease.

FACT 4: CTE can only be diagnosed in an autopsy. Science has not yet been able to determine how CTE might be identified reliably in a living person.

FACT 5: Since the symptoms associated with CTE exist in other conditions, there are no neurological or psychological signs that are unique to CTE.

While there may be a relationship between concussions and CTE, this has not been scientifically proven. Research in CTE is in its infancy.

Training adults and children to recognize concussions and manage them is important. Drills that limit contact during practice and teaching proper skill development should be required elements of youth sports. From the sideline to the classroom, comprehensive education regarding what to do after a suspected concussion is needed. Neuropsychologists are ideal for providing this education. 

All sports involving contact come with a risk for head injury. Therefore, focusing on what comes after the injury is how we can help youth athletes the most, including completing a standardized recovery plan, receiving medical clearance before returning to play, and managing a proper return to academics.

Jonathan Lichtenstein, PsyD, MBA is the Director of Pediatric Neuropsychological Services at Children’s Hospital at Dartmouth-Hitchcock and an Assistant Professor of Psychiatry and The Dartmouth Institute at the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth. For more information visit www.CHaDkids.org.

Categories: Mind and Body