What is chronic traumatic encephalopathy?

Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) is generally thought of as a progressive (gradually increasing) degenerative (worsening) brain condition that is linked to repeated blows to the head over a long period of time. The condition has been found in athletes who take part in contact sports, military personnel exposed to repetitive blast injuries, and even victims of domestic violence. This brain damage causes changes in a person’s thinking, personality, mood and behavior.

Who is at risk for chronic traumatic encephalopathy?

People who have repeated head trauma are at risk for CTE. This group includes:

  • Boxers and wrestlers
  • Athletes who take part in contact sports, such as football, hockey, and soccer
  • Military personnel

CTE has also been reported in people who have epilepsy and in victims of domestic abuse.

What are the symptoms of chronic traumatic encephalopathy?

Symptoms of CTE may not appear until many years after a person experiences the brain trauma. Some of the symptoms are similar to those of other degenerative brain conditions, like Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease.

Symptoms of CTE can include:

  • Headaches
  • Memory loss
  • Impulsive behavior
  • Changes in personality
  • Problems thinking clearly
  • Balance and movement difficulties

Personality changes associated with CTE, such as depression and aggression, can be difficult for some people to deal with. These feelings sometimes lead to complications, including accidents, drug and alcohol abuse, and suicide.

What causes chronic traumatic encephalopathy?

Repetitive head impacts can damage fibers that course through the brain and injure brain cells themselves. This can be associated with a buildup of a protein known as tau, which may have a role in cell death. The loss of these cells can interfere with healthy brain function, causing neurological changes that include memory loss, depression, aggressiveness, and balance and movement problems.

It is possible that several types of head injuries can lead to tau accumulation in the brain, including:

It is not known how many head traumas, or exactly what kinds, it takes for CTE to develop.

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