What Is Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE)? (2023)

Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) is a progressive degenerative brain disorder caused by repeated physical trauma to the head.This condition commonly affects military personnel, athletes who play contact sports, or anyone in a job or role that makes them prone to repeated head injuries.

CTE ranges in severity, and it can cause extreme brain damage, especially to particular areas of the brain, and can result in debilitating symptoms. CTE can also be a sneaky condition, taking years and sometimes even decades for severe symptoms to manifest.

Having a history of severe head trauma for several years can make anyone of any age susceptible to developing CTE. Around 17% of people who have experienced repeated concussions or mildtraumatic brain injurygo on to develop CTE.

Symptoms of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE)

CTE is a progressive disorder; symptoms can take many years to develop. When left undiagnosed and untreated, symptoms worsen over time. The most telling signs of CTE include

  • Recurring headaches
  • Short-term memory loss
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Sudden behavioral changes
  • Impulsive behavior

In severe cases, CTE is likely to cause more troubling symptoms, such as

  • Loss of coordination
  • Difficulty speaking coherently
  • Exhibiting aggressive behavior
  • Dementia
  • Experiencing tremors and uncontrollable muscle movements
  • Having suicidal thoughts or attempting suicide

Many brain disorders share similar symptoms with CTE. Exhibiting the above symptoms isn’t a sure sign that you have the condition. In some fatal cases of CTE, people with the disorder showed no symptoms while alive.

Diagnosis of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE)

Diagnosing CTE is challenging. Currently, there’s no specific test to diagnose CTE conclusively when a person is alive.

If you’ve been exhibiting symptoms that suggest you have CTE, your doctor will ask if you have a history of physical head trauma. They are then likely to conduct tests like magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans and computed tomography (CT) scans to rule out the possibility of other brain orneurological conditions.

Unfortunately, the only way to conclusively diagnose CTE is to examine cell samples from the brain of a person who has passed away from the condition.

Causes of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE)

The leading cause of CTE is repeated head trauma over a prolonged period. People often assume that the head trauma must have been so severe a person collapses or loses consciousness. However, CTE is caused by the effect of repeatedphysical traumato the head in varying degrees over time.

The trauma to the brain caused by recurring head injuries triggers the degeneration of brain tissue, which results in CTE. The buildup of a protein called tau has also been linked to the development of CTE. Tests for the diagnosis of CTE have identified the presence of an altered form of the tau protein in the brains of people with CTE.

Tau protein is also present in the brains of people with other neurological conditions likeAlzheimer’s disease. However, In people with CTE, the protein builds up in a unique pattern that distinguishes the condition from other neurological disorders. According to some researchers, it might be possible for these proteins to spread to other parts of the brain.

The critical component for CTE to occur is time. A single blow to the head one time is unlikely to cause CTE. However, research shows that people who have experienced traumatic brain injury (TBI) are two to four times more likely to develop dementia later in life.

People who play contact sports like rugby and football or are in military service are at a higher risk of developing CTE than others. These sports and jobs expose you to a risk of experiencing recurring head injuries.

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Stages of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE)

CTE typically develops in four stages:

  1. In the first stage, tau protein forms in some regions of the brain, typically in the lateral and frontal areas. The first stage is characterized by none or mild symptoms.
  2. In the second stage, more significant irregularities form in the brain resulting in behavioral symptoms and sometimes depression.
  3. There’s a noticeable loss of brain mass in the third stage, causing memory loss andcognitive dysfunction.
  4. The fourth stage results in psychotic symptoms, difficulty speaking coherently, and severe loss of motor skills.

Treatment for Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE)

There is currently no cure for CTE, but some of its symptoms can be managed, especially when an early diagnosis is made. Therapy can help manage symptoms to a degree. For instance, a person experiencing difficulty with speech will benefit from speech therapy.

Behavioral therapycan help regulate mood swings. Your healthcare provider may also administer medication to manage mood and behavioral changes and aid memory loss.

Researchers and scientists are working on some promising treatment options for CTE. One such treatment is immunotherapy, a form of treatment focused on combating the buildup of tau proteins in the brain. Medication to reduce inflammation also shows much promise for treating the condition.

Coping With Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE)

Preventing CTE is possible by protecting yourself from repeated head injuries. With specific jobs and sports, experiencing occasional head injuries can be challenging. Taking extra measures to protect yourself in those scenarios is crucial. Some steps you can take include:

  • Wear protective gear: Wear a high-quality helmet and other protective gear while playing contact sports or engaging in any activities that are prone to causing head injuries.
  • Be safe: While playing any sports, follow safety rules that have been put in place to protect yourself and others from grievous bodily harm.
  • Don’t dismiss head injuries: A head injury may not always cause severe or debilitating injuries. Regardless, contact your healthcare provider once you experience a head injury.

Self-care is crucial after a head injury. Create ahealthy daily routinethat incorporates regular exercise and adequate rest. Also, maintain a healthy and balanced diet to avoid nutritional deficits.

A Word From Verywell

CTE is a progressive and degenerative brain condition that can be fatal. More research needs to be done to help understand the condition and effectively treat it. The good news is that CTE is preventable.

If you work in a job or play a sport that exposes you to repeated head trauma, it’s crucial to take extra steps to protect yourself. CTE is a lifetime condition that requires ongoing management; preventing it is critical.

One of the more severe symptoms of CTE issuicidal thoughts and behavior.If you or a loved one is experiencing suicidal thoughts, contact emergency health services as soon as possible.

If you are having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 for support and assistance from a trained counselor. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, call 911.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

8 Sources

Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.

  1. Inserra CJ, DeVrieze BW. Chronic traumatic encephalopathy. In: StatPearls. StatPearls Publishing; 2022.

  2. CDC. Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE)

  3. Boston University CTE Center. Frequently asked questions about CTE

  4. Hay J, Johnson VE, Smith DH, Stewart W. Chronic traumatic encephalopathy: the neuropathological legacy of traumatic brain injury. Annu Rev Pathol Mech Dis. 2016;11(1):21-45. doi:10.1146/annurev-pathol-012615-044116

  5. Alzheimer's Association. Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE)

  6. Fesharaki-Zadeh A. Chronic traumatic encephalopathy: a brief overview. Front Neurol. 2019;10:713.

  7. Memory and Aging Center, The Regents of the University of California. Chronic traumatic encephalopathy.

  8. Breen PW, Krishnan V. Recent preclinical insights into the treatment of chronic traumatic encephalopathy. Front Neurosci. 2020;14.

What Is Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE)? (1)

By Toketemu Ohwovoriole
Toketemu has been multimedia storyteller for the last four years. Her expertise focuses primarily on mental wellness and women’s health topics.

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