Repetitive concussions bad for mental health

This just in – bashing your head repeatedly can cause permanent brain damage and even psychiatric problems.

May not sound like rocket science, but some American scientists at the Sports Legacy Institute are researching the effects of repetitive concussions on the brains of retired or deceased professional athletes.

Results from a variety of studies show brain injury from heavy contact sports such as football, boxing and wrestling can lead to lifelong mental health problems and even dementia in athletes.

Studies of more than 2,500 retired professional football players found an association between prior head injury and the likelihood of experiencing clinical depression.

Almost a quarter of the retired players reported a history of three or more concussions and this group was three times more likely to have depression than those with no history of concussions. Just over 36 percent had experienced one or two previous concussions and they were one and a half times more likely to have depression than those with no concussions.

Not only do these findings, published in 2007 in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, suggest a link between repeated concussion and depression, but they emphasize the need to further study this area.

Another study by the same group of scientists examined the association between multiple concussions and the development of mild cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s disease.

Data in this study showed an increase in clinically diagnosed cognitive impairment and self reported significant memory impairment in those who had multiple concussions during their careers. Those with three or more concussions had five times the prevalence of cognitive impairment and three times the prevalence of significant memory problems as those without concussion.

In related research, the Sports Legacy Institute has also been examining the brains of deceased professional athletes to learn what kind of physical damage may be occurring as a result of repeated concussions.

Reports of suicide, depression and strange behaviour seem abnormally high among professional athletes playing heavy contact sports and scientists wanted to learn whether this prevalence has anything to do with physical brain injuries occurring on the job.

Former wrestler Chris Benoit is one high profile example of a professional athlete whose mental state apparently declined and eventually led to a tragic murder suicide. Mr. Benoit’s father allowed his son’s brain to be studied and results confirmed repeated concussions may have caused significant damage that could have led to his psychiatric issues and the murder of his wife and son.

In a news release last September, researchers reported evidence of something called chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) consistent with numerous brain injuries in Mr. Benoit’s brain. Researchers said his extensively damaged brain resembled that of someone in their 80s or 90s with damage throughout the brain where abnormal Tau proteins (significant in Alzheimer’s disease) aggregated causing the CTE.

Common symptoms of CTE include depression, cognitive impairment, dementia, Parkinson’s disease and erratic behaviour.

CTE can only be confirmed by post-mortem analysis of brain tissue and scientists have also studied the brains of professional football players Mike Webster, Terry Long, Andre Waters and Justin Strzelczyck – all of whom died by age 50 and exhibited similar psychological behaviour. Each of these former athletes also exhibited CTE.

All of this points to a need to further research the effects of multiple concussions on the brain. With more knowledge we may be able to prevent further extreme cases among professional athletes and also protect amateur athletes and children involved in higher contact sports.

It is increasingly clear how important it is for everyone to protect their brain from trauma. I urge you to use caution when involved in athletic or other risky activities – wear a helmet and take care of your brain.


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