Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy Becoming A Growing Problem For Combat Veterans

Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy Becoming A Growing Problem For Combat Veterans

October 10, 2021

Chronic traumatic encephalopathy, commonly called CTE, is a degenerative brain disease caused by repeated brain traumas. CTE is most associated with professional football players, but it also affects combat veterans at alarming rates thanks to high exposure to blasts and other traumatic brain injuries.

Little is known about how and why CTE happens and how it affects suffers in the long term, but research is growing. The Department of Veterans Affairs partnered with the Concussion Legacy Foundation and Boston University to form the VA-BU-CLF Brain Bank, led by Dr. Ann McKee, where almost all the studies on CTE are done. Thanks to this initiative, the understanding of CTE has grown exponentially in recent years. 

CTE is believed to be caused when a protein called tau builds up in the brain and causes the brain tissue to atrophy. Sufferers usually experience hundreds or thousands of blows to the head over years while playing football and other contact sports or while serving in the military. Some of these blows cause concussions, while many do not. The sub-concussive injuries seem to be most responsible for the later development of CTE. 

For combat veterans, blast exposure from bombs and explosions could cause the type of damage that leads to CTE. The force of a blast causes a whiplash-type injury to the brain. Dr. Ann McKee discovered CTE in the donated brains of 110 out of 111 deceased NFL players, including the most serious case she had seen in a person under 30 in the brain of Aaron Hernandez, former NFL player and convicted murderer who died by suicide. Of the 102 veteran brains Dr. McKee looked at, 66 had CTE.

Symptoms of CTE typically surface years after the head injuries took place. They get progressively worse as the disease develops and more brain cells die. Behavioral, mood and cognitive changes have been observed. Some signs of CTE include:

  • Impulse control problems
  • Aggression
  • Violence
  • Mood swings
  • Depression
  • Paranoia
  • Anxiety
  • Memory loss
  • Confusion
  • Impaired judgment
  • Dementia
  • Sleep issues
  • Suicidal ideation and actions

Symptoms can appear in clusters, and they also tend to get worse with age. Mood and behavioral changes have been seen in younger sufferers, and cognitive issues might start in older years. 

A CTE diagnosis can only be confirmed after death by examining the brain. There is no cure. Experts recommend preventing CTE by eliminating exposures to injury-causing activities. Education on the danger of head injuries has increased drastically in recent years, particularly for young football players, hopefully reducing risk factors.

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