Serious Brain Trauma, Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), Found in Young Athletes

Jesse Mez, MD, MS; Bobak Abdolmohammadi, BA; et al
Graphic representation of an x-ray of a brain in a football helmet

Importance  Young contact sport athletes may be at risk for long-term neuropathologic disorders, including chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).

Objective  To characterize the neuropathologic and clinical symptoms of young brain donors who were contact sport athletes.

Design, Setting, and Participants  This case series analyzes findings from 152 of 156 brain donors younger than 30 years identified through the Understanding Neurologic Injury and Traumatic Encephalopathy (UNITE) Brain Bank who donated their brains from February 1, 2008, to September 31, 2022. Neuropathologic evaluations, retrospective telephone clinical assessments, and online questionnaires with informants were performed blinded. Data analysis was conducted between August 2021 and June 2023.

Exposures  Repetitive head impacts from contact sports.

Main Outcomes and Measures  Gross and microscopic neuropathologic assessment, including diagnosis of CTE, based on defined diagnostic criteria; and informant-reported athletic history and informant-completed scales that assess cognitive symptoms, mood disturbances, and neurobehavioral dysregulation.

Results  Among the 152 deceased contact sports participants (mean [SD] age, 22.97 [4.31] years; 141 [92.8%] male) included in the study, CTE was diagnosed in 63 (41.4%; median [IQR] age, 26 [24-27] years). Of the 63 brain donors diagnosed with CTE, 60 (95.2%) were diagnosed with mild CTE (stages I or II). Brain donors who had CTE were more likely to be older (mean difference, 3.92 years; 95% CI, 2.74-5.10 years) Of the 63 athletes with CTE, 45 (71.4%) were men who played amateur sports, including American football, ice hockey, soccer, rugby, and wrestling; 1 woman with CTE played collegiate soccer. For those who played football, duration of playing career was significantly longer in those with vs without CTE (mean difference, 2.81 years; 95% CI, 1.15-4.48 years). Athletes with CTE had more ventricular dilatation, cavum septum pellucidum, thalamic notching, and perivascular pigment-laden macrophages in the frontal white matter than those without CTE. Cognitive and neurobehavioral symptoms were frequent among all brain donors. Suicide was the most common cause of death, followed by unintentional overdose; there were no differences in cause of death or clinical symptoms based on CTE status.

Conclusions and Relevance  This case series found that young brain donors exposed to repetitive head impacts were highly symptomatic regardless of CTE status, and the causes of symptoms in this sample are likely multifactorial. Future studies that include young brain donors unexposed to repetitive head impacts are needed to clarify the association among exposure, white matter and microvascular pathologic findings, CTE, and clinical symptoms.

Posted on BrainLine September 13, 2023. Reviewed September 13, 2023.