Researchers at Boston University have been examining the brains of pro football players for the past several years. The players' brains were donated by their families after the men experienced early dementia as well as psychological problems. The CTE Center found 45 of the 46 NFL players they examined had CTE.
“The brain doesn’t know what causes repetitive trauma, whether it's soccer or baseball or other sports,” said Robert Cantu, professor of neurosurgery at Boston University School of Medicine, and an investigator in the BU CTE Center. “The brain is susceptible to CTE and you may wind up with it.”
The list of sports with athletes and CTE has expanded to include hockey stars, NASCAR drivers and baseball players. This year, MLB instituted a new rule to help avoid collisions between base runners and catchers at home plate.
While that rule change is relatively minor, one sports medicine physician says that medical researchers will have to come up with better data about CTE and head injuries before some sports make wholesale changes in equipment or rules.
“Are you going to ban heading?,” asked Rocco Monto, consulting physician to USA Soccer, the sports organizing body, and a Massachusetts physician. “How are you going to do that without data? Soccer players and fans are about as traditional as you are going to find. If you look at the structure of soccer and look at 100 years ago, it doesn’t look a lot different than today.”
Monto noted that bigger pads and helmets haven’t stopped injuries in football. He said that one of the challenges for both researchers and doctors is that CTE may be the result of cumulative hits to the head.
“That makes it all the more difficult when diagnosing a patient," Monto said. "Is it a clinical depression episode or related to head injuries? That’s the challenge for clinicians.”
Cantu and McAllister respond that new research currently underway may take some of the doubts away from the CTE equation, identify at-risk athletes through a genetic test, and perhaps even find a way to diagnose early stages of CTE in athletes before they leave their playing days behind.