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How Young is "Too Young" for Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy?

The evolution of the “meaning” of concussion has just taken another step…and it’s a frightening step.

Back in the day, concussion was viewed as a mild bump on the head, getting your “bell rung.” No one paid it much mind; take the hit and get back in the game.

Recently, doctors have warned that concussion is more dangerous than that. In fact, pediatricians have been lobbying to have it renamed, from concussion to the more accurately descriptive “mild traumatic brain injury” (MTBI).

Earlier this year, scientists made the disturbing discovery that people who suffer repeated head injury (such as football players and soldiers) develop a type of brain damage that mimics amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), or Lou Gehrig’s disease. This was the discovery of a new disease syndrome that causes brain damage, central nervous system damage, dementia, and eventually death. It is called Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, or CTE, and it is only caused by repetitive brain trauma.

Today, The New York Times reports that the autopsy of a 21-year-old college football player who died of suicide revealed that he had the early stages of CTE. This young man, Owen Thomas, had no history of depression, but suffered what was called a “sudden and uncharacteristic emotional collapse” before taking his life in April 2010. Thomas is the youngest football player, and first amateur football player, to be found with clear CTE. If he hadn’t killed himself, the brain injury wouldn’t have been discovered for years, if ever. But the circumstances of his death demanded autopsy.

Although there is no way to definitively link his suicide to the brain damage, the connection is certainly possible, if not probable:

“It’s not unreasonable that aspects of his behavior were related to the underlying brain disease that was detected,” said Dr. Perl [Daniel Perl, professor of pathology at Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences], adding that he was speaking as an experienced neuropathologist and not on behalf of his organization. “This is real.”

Dr. Perl added that this finding showed that CTE is possible earlier, and at impact levels lower than those experienced by professional football players.

Right now, no one knows how many hits…how frequent the hits…or how hard the hits have to be before “several concussions” becomes “irreversible brain damage.”  The only thing that is clear is that we need to do more to protect the brains of young athletes. If CTE was found in the brain of an otherwise healthy 21-year-old man, when did it start? In high school? Junior high? Pop Warner Youth Football?

Just last month, we reported about the virtual explosion in the number of head injuries experienced by children while playing sports: In just 10 years, kids ages 8-13 had double the number of concussion-related hospital emergency visits. Kids ages 14-19 had quadruple the number. Unless we take action now, some of these children may end up with permanent, debilitating brain injury.

What can we do? We wrote about that, too…just last week. (Click here to read that entry: The Head Game of Youth Sports.)  And you know what? We’ll continue to write about concussion and brain injury until there is nothing left to write about. Football season is here…let’s keep all players safe.

If you want to read the full article from The New York Times, click here: Penn Football Player Had Brain Disease, Autopsy Shows

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