Kyla Guimaraes
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CTE: The Hidden Danger in Football

— Kyla Guimaraes

Mike Webster’s mind was deteriorating. He had a successful career as a professional American football player, memorialized in the Hall-of-Fame. Upon retiring in 1990, though, he began suffering from dementia and amnesia. He experienced depressive episodes, intense headaches, and displayed increased aggression. No medications seemed to work. Doctors were stumped.

Shortly after Webster’s death in 2002, neuropathologist Dr. Bennet Omalu performed an autopsy on Webster’s brain. Surprisingly, it was healthy. Puzzled, Omalu sent slices of Webster’s brain for staining, a process that allows scientists to visualize cellular and molecular aspects of the brain. The results showed hyperphosphorylated tau (p-tau) proteins had built up in Webster’s brain in clumps, creating neurofibrillary tangles. In healthy brains, p-tau proteins stabilize microtubules (tiny, hollow tubes that form part of the cell’s cytoskeleton and are vital to cell function and structure) and maintain the shape of microtubules by stabilizing chemical bonds. When p-tau proteins build up and form neurofibrillary tangles, though, the microtubules they stabilize no longer work, and impair neuron function. The accumulation of p-tau proteins—closely associated with over 26 neurodegenerative diseases, including Alzheimers—seemed a plausible reason for Webster’s condition. But what had caused p-tau proteins to accumulate in his brain? 

The answer, Omalu suspected, was traumatic brain injury (TBI). He theorized that the repetitive head contact prevalent in American football had caused Webster’s illness. He coined a new term to describe this neurodegenerative disease: chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).  In CTE, the accumulation of p-tau proteins results in the death of nerve cells in the brain, causing symptoms such as those Webster experienced. Doctors recently discovered the prevalence of CTE in the brains of athletes playing high-contact sports, including American football. Many retired professional football players have gone through what Webster experienced. Even student athletes who obtain multiple concussions can be at risk of developing CTE.  
Plague of CTE threatens the future of football - The Mossy Log

CTE remains in many ways a mystery. Currently, the only way to know if someone has CTE is with an autopsy. For now, it serves as a diagnostic tool to explain symptoms experienced by athletes playing high-contact sports, and as a call for an increased focus on the consequences of playing such sports, especially for young athletes.


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