James M. Ecklund, MD, FACS, is board certified in neurological surgery. He is chairman of the Inova Neuroscience & Spine Institute and serves on the National Football League (NFL) Players Association’s Mackey-White Committee, which focuses on player health and well-being. Read Dr. Ecklund’s Profile.
Retired professional soccer player Brandi Chastain recently announced that she will donate her brain after death to Boston University researchers studying chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). I’m optimistic that moves such as this will help advance our understanding of brain injury in sports.
What Is CTE?
CTE is a degenerative disease of the brain that affects athletes and others who have suffered repeated blows to the head. The disease is associated with memory loss, confusion, aggression, depression, impaired judgment, impulsive behavior and progressive dementia.
CTE has been found in the brains of boxers, football players and hockey players. In many cases, people with CTE have a history of repeated concussions, a form of mild traumatic brain injury caused by a blow to the head. Symptoms of concussion include:
- Blurry vision
- Sensitivity to light or noise
- Problems with memory or concentration
But CTE may also occur in a subset of people who have experienced a series of “sub-concussive” blows. These are hits to the head that aren’t strong enough to cause concussion symptoms.
Predicting and Preventing Brain Injury
CTE has gotten increased attention lately as a number of professional football players have donated their brains to be studied. But brain injury isn’t just a concern for football players and their families. In basketball, wrestling, soccer and many other sports, concussions are not uncommon.
Chastain’s decision to donate her brain will help scientists better understand head injuries in soccer. Perhaps even more important, as a high-profile athlete, her announcement could inspire other athletes to consider donating their brains to science. Such research will add to our pool of knowledge and help us better predict — and prevent — CTE and other brain injuries.
Concussions and CTE: Lingering Questions
When it comes to concussions and CTE, there’s a lot we still don’t know. CTE is marked by abnormal deposits of a protein called tau in the brain. Right now, we can only diagnose CTE posthumously–by looking at brain tissue after a person has died. We don’t yet have a way to make a definitive diagnosis when a person is still alive.
Nor can we say with certainty what types of events are most likely to cause CTE. Is it caused by a particular type of blow to the head? Does it arise only after many hits, or can it happen after just a few?
The questions about brain injuries in sports extend beyond CTE. After a head injury, people sometimes experience post-concussion syndrome, which occurs when concussion symptoms linger for weeks or months. Though the syndrome may not lead to CTE, it can cause significant difficulties for people who experience it.
In addition, we still don’t understand what other factors might make a person vulnerable to brain damage from concussions or sub-concussive blows. We need to explore how factors such as gender, genetics and drug or alcohol use might affect a person’s susceptibility to brain injury.
Inova: Brain Injury Research and Treatment
Our neurologists are experts at treating head injuries, including concussion and post-concussion syndrome. In fact, Inova Fairfax Hospital is ranked among the best in the region for neurology and neurosurgery by U.S. News & World Report, and throughout our hospital system, the Inova Concussion Program uses a multidisciplinary team approach and advanced technology to diagnose, treat and provide rehabilitation for patients with concussions.
At Inova, we are also actively involved in research. We recently participated in a multi-institutional study to test a new system for diagnosing head injury severity in the emergency room. We are also involved in research to look for genetic biomarkers that might make people more or less susceptible to damage from head injuries.
Read more about the Inova Neuroscience & Spine Institute.