Chronic traumatic encephalopathy/ boxers encephalopathy/ dementia pugilistica

Chronic traumatic encephalopathy


Nitin K Sethi, MD

Assistant Professor of Neurology

New York-Presbyterian Hospital

Weill Cornell Medical Center

New York, NY

I recently read an article dealing with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) and the pledge by some professional football players to donate their brains for the study of CTE. As everything to do with brain health fascinates me, I decided this might be a good time to share my thoughts about CTE with my readers.

So what exactly is CTE? In simple terms it means encephalopathy (brain damage) caused by chronic trauma. Professional athletes especially those playing contact sports like American football, rugby, boxing and wrestling are prone to repeated head trauma. Have any of you ever watched a UFC fight? They are brutal, though as a spectator, I have to admit I love them and find them quite entertaining. Matt Hughes is my hero and I marvel at his strength and skills. But this entertainment comes at a price, at least for the athlete involved. A boxer during his professional career gets hit on his head countless times. Even though he may never get knocked out (have a concussion), the repeated blows to the head do take a toll. Studies have shown these players get small microbleeds in the deeper parts of the brain such as the basal ganglia. Over years this microdamage to the brain accumulates and these players complain of memory and other cognitive problems. They may further develop symptoms suggestive of Parkinsonism and Alzheimer’s disease. They have headache and also complain of balance problems (this was labeled in the past as “punch-drunk syndrome“). The dementia seen in patients with CTE has histopathological features similar to those seen in Alzheimer’s dementia (hence the term “dementia pugilistica“).

So how do you prevent yourself from CTE?  Simple, avoid contact sports especially if you are not doing it for professional reasons. Concussions do hurt the brain and contrary to common belief may cause permanent structural damage to the brain. If you suffer a concussion while playing in school or college do not return to play till you feel completely better and have a doctor’s clearence (read my post on concussions and return to play decision at Give your brain time to heal and drink alcohol in moderation (remember alcohol is a neurotoxin and too much is bad for the brain). If like me you indulge in contact sports like boxing, always always do wear protective head gear when you fight.



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