Hundreds of former University of Nebraska-Lincoln athletes could become part of the most extensive study to date of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the controversial, dementia-causing disease that’s behind much of the furor over football and concussions.
UNL concussion researcher Dennis Molfese said he hopes to launch a study soon of the true prevalence of CTE among former football players. As subjects for the study, Molfese intends to draw willing participants from more than 2,000 former Cornhusker athletes.
Researchers nationally have identified more than 50 deceased football players who suffered from CTE, a degenerative brain disease that had been long linked to boxers. Most of the players with CTE had histories of multiple concussions or serious head impacts.
In scientific circles, however, that research has proved controversial. Most of the players chosen for study had exhibited symptoms of the disease. That selectivity makes it impossible to determine the true prevalence or risk of CTE in football.
Meanwhile, millions of others have played the game for long periods of time — including thousands who had long professional careers — without exhibiting signs of CTE.
“The bottom line,” Molfese said of the true risk factors of the disease, “is we don’t have a clue.’’
Molfese said UNL’s study will attempt to get around the selectivity problem by drawing test subjects from a broad and large database of former athletes that would be provided by the university’s athletic department. The athletes would include football players but also athletes from other sports. Comparing results from athletes in contact sports with those in noncontact sports would shed new light on the role both serious and minor head impacts play in CTE.
In the UNL study, scientific surveys of the athletes would seek to determine whether they had experienced signs of memory loss, dementia, depression or suicidal thoughts, all symptoms previously linked to CTE. The athletes also would be surveyed on their history of concussions and head contact.
Willing subjects would additionally be run through a battery of tests and brain scans in the university’s Center for Brain, Biology and Behavior, providing an opportunity to identify other possible indicators of CTE.
Molfese said he hoped to finish drafting parameters for the study soon, and then seek national grant funding to finance it.