Professor sponsors lecture on CTE and concussions

Dr. Robert Stern shares his findings on Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) (Photo courtesy of Jacob Belcher / Boston Herald)

Jason Ounpraseuth
Connector Editor

Dr. Robert A. Stern and his colleagues at Boston University (BU) have spent the last couple of years studying the brains of deceased athletes and researching long-term effects sports like football and boxing have had on the brain to find a better understanding of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE).

Associate Professor Jeffrey Gerson’s Introduction to Politics and Sports course sponsored a lecture in which Dr. Stern shared his latest research findings to students and researchers to help everyone better understand the effects of CTE and the work that is being done to help prevent the degenerative disease.

Dr. Stern, director of the Boston University CTE Center, is admittedly a football fan. The past few years of research have changed for the Patriots fan causing him to watch less and less football.

“I actually know very little about concussions,” said Dr. Stern. “I am a neurodegenerative disease expert. I’m an Alzheimer’s disease researcher.” The purpose for Dr. Stern’s research is to look at the long-term impacts on the brain. Concussions play a part in the degenerative impacts on the brain, but the under-looked cause is the sub-concussive hits that happen during every football play that do not get the same attention that concussions do.

Research on CTE has been done for decades, but the focus was on boxing. Dr. Bennet Omalu’s discoveries of former Pittsburgh Steelers player Mike Webster was the impetus for CTE research on football players and has expanded to other sports like soccer and hockey and military veterans.

Dr. Ann McKee has studied a lot of brains at BU’s brain bank. She has so far not found any symptoms of CTE in women. Dr. Stern believes that will change in the future as more brains are donated to their center and as athletes and military veterans age as Dr. Stern calls CTE “a disease of aging.” Symptoms will not show to a group that was previously not given opportunities in sports and the military but that will most likely change in the coming years as research continues to develop.

Detecting the symptoms of CTE during life would be a huge boost in research. As of right now, research on CTE can only be done post-mortem. The behavior of these individuals is based off conversations with the loved ones of the individual. The symptoms of those diagnosed with CTE are changes in personality, mood and behavior, apathy, a short fuse and loss of cognitive function.

Dr. Stern highlighted these symptoms in real-life cases that BU has been involved with through Dr. McKee’s work studying the brains that have been donated to their center. Each former athlete mentioned all had similar symptoms, but most importantly these individuals had either zero or very little concussions during their playing days showing even more that the sub-concussive hits are the real factor in the degeneration of the brain instead of concussions themselves.

The research on CTE is so new that Dr. Stern described his team’s understanding of it as “in the toddlerhood of understanding.” Science does not move as fast as the media and culture have on the discussion of CTE.

Stern said he hopes that the media will learn the distinction between concussions and CTE. Concussions are what get the media attention, but CTE is the real issue at hand and is a completely different area of research. The focus on concussions takes away from the understanding of CTE providing a different message to the general public.

For more information on Dr. Stern and his team’s research efforts on CTE, you can go to diagnoseCTE.com.

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