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Can pro sports concussions lead to traumatic encephalopathy?

We've been hearing it for a long time: Professional athletes are at risk of developing serious health consequences related to concussions. When an athlete suffers repeated -- even minor -- concussions over an extended period of time, the athlete can develop numerous health problems, including cognitive difficulties, extreme depression and suicidal tendencies.

Doctors are now looking to solidify the link between concussion and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a disease that looks something like Alzheimer's.

The link between CTE and concussion

One of the more difficult aspects of connecting concussion with CTE is the fact that CTE is difficult to diagnose before the patient dies and doctors perform an autopsy. However, researchers are now looking at the tau protein, which plays a vital role in the stabilization of cerebral brain cells. In cases of CTE, tau protein molecules create clumps that spread into the brain and kill brain cells. This process involving tau also happens in a similar way when individuals have Alzheimer's disease.

CTE is a serious condition that can lead to death, and there is no official treatment for the disease. However, some drugs that help Alzheimer's patients might be able to reduce how much tau protein conglomerates in the brains of CTE patients, doctors say.

Doctors hope to create a blood test that can detect tau levels as a means of diagnosing CTE before death. This would allow researchers to study and establish a definitive link between contact sports activities and CTE. According to researchers, the longer an athlete participates in contact sports like boxing and football, the higher risk he or she has of developing CTE.

Why this is important for workers' compensation benefits

Professional athletes in California who suffer injuries and disease conditions related to their professions can pursue workers' compensation benefits. However, to receive workers' compensation benefits -- to pay for medical care, time spent unable to work and permanent disabilities -- workers must get a positive diagnosis of their conditions.

With a test that reveals a CTE diagnosis, and by establishing a link between CTE and professional contact sports, athletes may have an easier time pursuing the employment benefits they have a legal right to receive.

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