Brown U. doctor makes distinction between CTE, concussions

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — A newly published study shows that 99 percent of deceased NFL players’ brains that were donated to scientific research had Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, or CTE.

CTE is a neurodegenerative disease that can lead to a variety of symptoms including memory loss, impaired judgement and depression. But some medical experts are warning that the study lacks scientific verification and also want to remind people that CTE and concussions are not the same thing.

Former New England Patriots linebacker Junior Seau committed suicide in 2012 and left behind a family with a lot of questions. His brain later tested positive for CTE and his story is just one of many.

In this Jan. 10, 2010, file photo, New England Patriots linebacker Junior Seau reacts on the field during an NFL wildcard playoff football game in Foxboro. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola, File)

In this latest study published in the medical journal JAMA, the disease was identified in 110 out of 111 former NFL players who participated in the study. It was also found in three of the 14 former high school football players and 48 of the 53 former college football players.

Despite the results, medical experts said they still can’t say repeated head injuries cause CTE.

“We don’t know. And one of the reasons we don’t know is the only way to diagnose CTE currently is by brain biopsy, and you can’t really biopsy a living brain. These are all postmortem studies,” said Dr. Mark Greve, a clinical associate professor of emergency medicine at Brown University and attending physician at Rhode Island Hospital.

Greve said while the study results contain powerful information, the study itself lacks scientific verification by not having a control group to compare the results to.

“This study that was recently published in JAMA was really all patients that were already suspected of having CTE, so this was not the way that we usually like to collect this evidence,” he explained. “I think it’s important not to be dismissive of the results of the study, but we also have to recognize that this has not been entirely medically demonstrated.”

Still, the study authors said the results show there’s a clear problem in football.

Greve doesn’t necessarily disagree but he said the occurrence of CTE in the general population is not likely to be very high.

“These are people who have been exposed through almost a career perspective repeated head injuries,” Greve said. “It’s very important to realize that this is not concussions. This is a separate entity. Just because you hit your head, even a couple of times, you’re really at no risk of it.”

Greve said concussions are still a major health risk to the general public and need to be taken seriously. He said parents should make an educated decision when considering contact sports like football, hockey and mixed martial arts. However, he noted there’s an even bigger public health risk than head injuries.

“Sedentarism is going to kill and affect way more people than concussions or CTE ever is,” Greve said.