Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) is a rare degenerative brain disorder. A form of CTE called dementia pugilistica (commonly referred to as “punch drunk” syndrome) was discovered in the 1920s in boxers.

Since CTE is rare, there is still a lot that experts don’t know about it. There is no known cure, and it can’t be diagnosed during a person’s lifetime. Tools such as an MRI or CT scan can’t detect CTE.

What Causes CTE?

The precise causes of CTE are not yet known. Scientists studying CTE believe that it is caused by repeated head injuries.

The Science Behind CTE

On a very basic level, CTE affects the brain when a protein called tau malfunctions and affects the neurons in the brain. Neurons are cells in the brain that transmit information to the rest of your nervous system so that you can function mentally, physically, and emotionally.

For as important as they are, neurons have some spindly parts that are quite fragile. In a healthy brain, tau protein helps support the neurons. But when the brain gets injured, the tau protein can misfold, break loose, and end up where it shouldn’t.

The symptoms of CTE result when tau protein misfolds and builds up around the blood vessels in the brain where it doesn’t belong. You may have heard the term tau protein in connection with Alzheimer’s disease. While tau does play a role in Alzheimer’s and other neurological diseases, experts believe that the way tau progresses in the brain in CTE is unique.

Physical Triggers of CTE

Studies suggest that repeated head trauma is what triggers changes in the brain that lead to CTE. It doesn’t appear that one single head injury, such as what you might sustain in a car accident or slip and fall, can lead to CTE. 

Experts believe that the damaged tau protein moves slowly throughout the brain. This is the reason that CTE symptoms may show up years or even decades after the last impact to the head. 

What Are the Symptoms of CTE

Symptoms of CTE may be similar to many other injuries. Symptoms early in life could be different than those later in life. This is likely due to the slow progression of the tau protein throughout the brain.

Some symptoms can include:

  • Memory problems
  • Cognitive difficulties
  • Impaired judgment
  • Behavioral changes and mood swings
  • Aggression
  • Confusion
  • Anxiety
  • Sleep disorders

Symptoms affecting mental health or behavioral symptoms tend to occur earlier in life. Symptoms causing problems with memory and cognition occur later in life and may progress to dementia. 

Because the symptoms can be the same as other neurological disorders, and because there is no current test to diagnose CTE during a person’s lifetime, it’s almost impossible to know if you have CTE.

Who is at Risk for CTE?

Whether it’s local high school athletes around Oklahoma City or professional football players, anyone who suffers from repeated impacts to the head could be at risk of developing CTE. Based on studies confirming the existence of CTE, various athletes in contact sports are at the highest risk of CTE. 

Any of the following could develop CTE:

  • Football players
  • Boxers
  • Hockey players
  • Victims of physical abuse
  • Military personnel
  • Rugby players

Not everyone who has a blow to the head develops CTE. Not even everyone who has a concussion or other brain injury will develop CTE. While there is not much known about the progression of CTE, experts believe that the age of first head injuries, genetics, and the number of years of exposure to head trauma all play a role in whether someone might develop CTE.

What You Can Do to Prevent CTE

Although there is a lot that’s still unknown about CTE, we know it’s caused by chronic head impacts. If you’re playing contact sports, always wear protective headgear and all safety gear.

If you do receive a head injury, seek medical attention right away. You may not be able to learn whether you have CTE, but you can receive treatment for concussions or a traumatic brain injury. Damage from brain injuries may not be apparent right away. You should always seek medical treatment after you’ve hit your head, even if you don’t think you are injured.

Depending on the circumstances, you may want to speak to an Oklahoma City personal injury lawyer if you’ve received head injuries. While many activities causing CTE are voluntary, such as playing sports, faulty equipment designed to protect you or other factors could point to someone’s negligence as a cause of your injuries.