Way back in the 1920s, boxers sometimes suffered from a condition named dementia pugilistica. Dr. Harrison Stanford Martland, a medical examiner in New Jersey, was the first to describe the condition, something he did in the medical journal Journal of the American Medical Association. Tremors, general confusion, speaking impairments, and sluggish movements were the four primary symptoms of the condition.
In 1949, this condition was named chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the same condition that is thought to ravage American football players and others who play high-impact contact sports.
The very first American football player found to have CTE was Mike Webster. A 16-year veteran at center for both the Kansas City Chiefs and the Pittsburgh Steelers, Webster died at age 50 of a heart attack. Now-famed physician Bennet Omalu wrote a journal article in Neurosurgery titled “Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy in a National Football League Player.” Since then, players, coaches, executives, and the public are all aware of a probable link between CTE and playing high-impact sports like football.
A new development in the research of the brain condition CTE came just yesterday
On November 4, 2018, a handful of students working collaboratively through Boston University’s School of Medicine published a paper titled “Variation in TMEM106B in chronic traumatic encephalopathy” in the medical journal Acta Neuropathologica.
Before the group’s findings were made public just yesterday, scientific literature had no proven, definite link between genes and chronic traumatic encephalopathy. However, there’s a first for everything and this 20-odd-deep group of researchers was the first to link genes with CTE.
As mentioned above, boxers were thought to be the only people to suffer from what’s now known as CTE. Fast forward some 80 years to modern times and people thought CTE was almost exclusively reserved for football and hockey players.
The paper indicated that people with a certain gene, a variant of gene TMEM106B, were roughly 2.5 times as likely to form dementia at some point in their lives. Further, people with the aforementioned variant were also at an increased risk for “severe disease,” per a Boston Globe article recapping the finding.
CTE is not more likely to develop in people with the gene variant, however. Thor Stein, a physician in on the study, wrote that their findings indicated that “repetitive head impacts is the overwhelming driver of getting [CTE].”