Research: In Donated Brains of NFL Players, Most Had Degenerative Brain Disease

CLEVELAND – Recent research has sparked conversation around the possible effects that concussions can have on the long-term health of football players.

Richard Figler, M.D., a sports medicine physician at Cleveland Clinic, did not take part in the study, but said that researchers found a change in the brains of former NFL players, known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy or CTE.

“The study showed that there was a significantly higher number of athletes – that played in the NFL; that had their brain donated to science – that ended up with chronic traumatic encephalopathy,” said Dr. Figler. 

CTE is a progressive degenerative disease of the brain in which protein deposits form and can cause behavioral and mood issues, or other neurological problems such as dementia.

Dr. Figler said CTE is a post-mortem diagnosis, meaning that it can only be definitively diagnosed after a person’s death.

The study looked at the donated brains of former football players including professional, semi-professional, collegiate, and high school athletes.

Researchers found that of the 202 brains studied, nearly 88 percent of them had CTE.

The results were even more pronounced among former NFL players, where 110 of the one 111 brains studied had CTE.

Dr. Figler said it’s important to note that the results of the study are prone to a ‘selection bias’ whereas only athletes that had donated their brains for research were studied – it was not a sample of all athletes who had played in the NFL.

The donated brains belonged to football players who had all experienced noticeable cognitive issues that they or their families had reported.

He also pointed out that the athletes who were studied played football during a period of time when concussions weren’t as widely recognized or treated as often as they are today, so future research is needed.

And Dr. Figler said that even though the study doesn’t tell us everything we need to know when it comes to concussions and long-term brain risks for football players, research like this will hopefully lead us to those answers in the future.

“We don’t know the answer to – ‘how many concussions are too many?’ We don’t know the answer to ‘how many hits are too many?’ said Dr. Figler. “What this research is going to allow us to do, is to hopefully look at people along the continuum of their life, and hopefully figure out how young is too young to get a hit that may potentially lead to these problems.”

Complete results of the study can be found in JAMA.