Contact Sports and Neurological Damage

By: Nonachi Achara

There is a growing issue of athletes becoming violent years after playing a certain contact sport. These cases are most often seen with football players, soccer players, boxers, etc. Many players go from being completely neurologically sound to being aggressive, violent, and unable to control their emotions. In addition to this, these traits are typically gained years after an athlete has played a certain sport over the course of many years. These behavioral changes in athletes involved in contact sports are mainly linked to chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), traumatic brain injury (TBI), and exposure to repetitive head injuries.

One major link to these behavioral shifts in athletes is chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). But what exactly is CTE? CTE is a brain disease that causes the brain tissues to slowly deteriorate due to repetitive injuries to the brain. According to the Concussion Legacy Foundation, those who suffer from CTE may be neurologically stable for years before their condition intensifies. Additionally, CTE can cause conflicts with memory, personality, and emotional control. CTE works by weakening axons and by doing this, it makes it harder for cells to spread the necessary materials all over the cell body.

Take a look at this image. As evidenced by the picture above, a normal brain differs drastically from one affected by CTE. This is because CTE allows for a certain protein (Tau) to form around the brain blood vessels, ultimately destroying nerve cells. CTE is mainly linked to the behavioral shifts in athletes involved in contact sports due to the way that it develops excessive and repetitive injuries to the brain.

Another major factor that resonates with the rewiring of an athlete’s neurological functions is traumatic brain injury (TBI). According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, TBI comes in two forms: penetrating TBI and non-penetrating TBI. Penetrating TBI is when the skull and brain are both pierced by an object causing nerve and tissue damage. Contrarily, non-penetrating TBI occurs when the brain moves within the skull due to a blunt exterior force. Non-penetrating TBI is the case most often seen in athletes.

This illustration depicts the way the brain is injured from non-penetrating TBI. The brain moves around the skull when this injury occurs. Similar to CTE, TBI can also produce long lasting effects years after the immediate injury has occurred. These effects include the same ones as CTE such as behavioral changes, aggressiveness, lack of emotional control, etc.

Both CTE and TBI can be classified as diffuse injuries (injuries that have effects that occur years later). These types of injuries can be hard to treat because they are most likely diagnosed after death through autopsy. Some symptoms that may be seen include memory loss, confusion, behavioral shifts, etc. Certain treatments for those showing symptoms of CTE and TBI include anticoagulants (prevents blood clots), muscle relaxants (reduces muscle spasms), etc. Although many symptoms may never disappear in certain patients, these treatments can drastically reduce the effects of these injuries.

Comprehension Questions:

1. What does Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy do to the brain?

Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy allows for Tau to form around blood vessels in the brain which causes damage to the nerve cells. CTE slowly degenerates the brain.

2. What are the main symptoms linked to Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy and Traumatic Brain Injury?

The main symptoms linked to CTE and TBI are memory loss, behavioral shifts, increased aggressiveness, etc. Many of these symptoms do not occur until years after an injury has occured in many athletes.