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Sports-Related Concussions and CTE: Is There A Definitive Link?

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Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) was first identified in 1928, when it was associated with boxers and came to be known as “punch drunk” syndrome. It has long been maintained that concussions sustained by participants in contact sports such as football and boxing heightened the risk of CTE. However, a new study published in the Neuropsychology Review insists there is limited evidence at best to support the theory that sports concussions increase the risk of cognitive and neuropsychiatric problems late in life.

The report details the findings of a study that involved 3,439 retired athletes and concluded that previous investigations into the matter provided no definitive evidence of a link. Authors Christopher Randolph of Loyola University Medical Center and Stella Karantzoulis of New York University School of Medicine point out that CTE cases reported so far followed autopsies of athletes´ brains at the request of families. The latter donated the brains driven by concerns about cognitive and behavioural symptoms exhibited by the athletes before their death. However, non-random samples like these can lead to biased findings as they may not represent the entire retired population of athletes.

Suicidality is considered a key feature of CTE and the findings of Randolph and Karantzoulis make it difficult to maintain that sports concussions and CTE are linked. The research duo established that suicide rates within the general population were actually higher than those among retired American football players. While brain injuries are undoubtedly a risk in contact sports, the data available at present does not point clearly to a link between concussions and a higher CTE risk. Any definitive answer will require more rigorous and controlled studies, the researchers note in their report.