Despite technical advances in clinical medicine, the only way to definitively diagnose many types of brain disease is by examination of brain tissue after death. This is particularly the case for chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE): at present there is no test a doctor can perform that will allow them to diagnose CTE while you are living. We at the ASBB are working to change that.
Researchers overseas have attempted to define some clinical criteria for a condition called traumatic encephalopathy syndrome (TES) that is associated with repetitive head injuries, and this may be related to CTE in some individuals. But these TES criteria are only intended for use in research studies, and a diagnosis of TES does not mean a diagnosis of CTE.
What is CTE?
CTE is a brain condition that is caused by repeated exposure to mild traumatic brain injuries. These may or may not be associated with concussion. CTE was first found in boxers many decades ago, and has since been described in players of American football and a host of other contact sports where head injuries occur regularly.
The Australian Sports Brain Bank found the first cases in CTE in ex-players of Australian Rules football, rugby league, and rugby union, so we know that Australia is not immune to this disease. It is important to know that not everyone who experiences repeated mild traumatic brain injuries will develop CTE. We do not currently understand why this is the case.
CTE can occur at any age, and in most cases the first symptoms occur years or decades after brain injury. Signs of CTE include problems with thinking and memory, personality changes, and behavioural changes including aggression and depression. The US Centre for Disease Control (CDC) has released a factsheet on CTE which can be downloaded here. Please also see our Resources page to access other resources on CTE. Up to date information on the science of CTE, concussion and persistent post-concussion syndrome can be found on the Concussion Legacy Foundation (CLF) website. The CLF are our international partners.
What is the ASBB trying to achieve?
We do not currently know how often CTE or any other brain disease occurs in Australian contact sportspeople across different sports. A primary goal of the ASBB is to confirm the existence (and evaluate the prevalence) of CTE in Australian contact sports, and make this information available to the public and to policy makers.
The ASBB is committed to research into the long-term effects of concussion on the brain, in particular with regards to CTE, with a view to developing new means of diagnosis of brain disease during life. Research being pursued by the ASBB involves understanding the full impact of sports-related concussion on the human nervous system. This would not be possible without the tissue so generously given by our donors and their families.
We are using donated tissue to try and understand why some individuals get CTE and others don’t. There may be genetic factors, as well as environmental risk factors involved. We can study donor tissue to help understand the biological processes involved in the development of CTE and this will lead to the development of tests that can diagnose CTE in life, and also help in developing effective treatments.
Scientific papers resulting from our work can be downloaded here
ASBB neuropathologists are expert in tissue-based diagnosis of all brain pathology, including CTE. A comprehensive neuropathological evaluation of brains donated to the ASBB will be provided to a doctor nominated by the family so that the results can be discussed. Together, the diagnoses of all brains donated to the ASBB will help us inform the community on the nature and extent of brain pathology associated with contact sports in Australia.