Monday, February 28, 2011

Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy

It looks like the tipping point for Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) has arrived, thanks to a number of recent events that have garnered public attention. CTE is a neural disease caused by repeated blows to the head, as might be the case with a contact sport athlete such as a football player or boxer. The symptoms vary, but appear to include memory loss, headaches, depression, and agression. Former professional football players in their 40s are experiencing symptoms that might otherwise be expected from Alzheimer's patients.

My first introduction to this area was this excellent Malcolm Gladwell article in the New Yorker, that described the lives of some former football players, as well as the work of Dr. McKee at Boston University, who studies chronic brain trauma. Based on some conversations I had with colleagues after reading this article, I recently submit a grant to NIH to study how EEG can be used to study chronic brain trauma (our model will study rats, not people). It seems that very little is known at the neuronal level about how minute head impacts accumulate over time to produce serious damage. We are hoping to develop a rat model that will (a) allow us to understand the underlying biological processes and (b) whether the progression of injury can be correlated with EEG markers.

The real story however has been the recent suicide of former Chicago Bear Dave Duerson. In case you've somehow missed this story, Mr. Duerson recently shot himself in the chest after starting to experience some symptoms consistent with chronic traumatic encephalopathy. His shot to the chest ensured that his brain would remain intact for post mortem scientific study my Dr. McKee's lab, as was his final wish. This story seems to have been the tipping point - the past few weeks have been rife with stories in the mass media about the long term cognitive effects of contact sports such as football, including former athletes with obvious brain issues as well as the NFL's announcement of a formal sideline testing policy following potentially concussive events.

The Neural Instrumentation Lab is following these developments with great interest.

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