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Chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, is a relatively new condition to medicine. It has long been suspected that repetitive brain trauma from events like American football tackles, explosions or boxing increased the risk of developing dementia, but it was only in the last 10 years or so that the evidence base to properly diagnose the condition has been available. Previously, it had been known as “punch drunk syndrome” (first described in 1928) and only sparsely studied.
In 2005 a pathologist called Bennet Omalu dissected a former American football player, Mike Webster. What he found was a protein called tau had spread across the man’s brain, and was the probable cause of Webster’s dementia. It was particularly concerning because Alzheimer’s and bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) are both thought to be caused by similar proteins.
Since then, it has been spotted in athletes, soldiers, professional fighters and people who have a history of head injury. Famously, Eugene Monroe, an American football player for the Jacksonville Jaguars and Baltimore Ravens, quit the game citing concerns over the head trauma he had suffered during his career, quitting before he developed CTE. He is also a leading advocate of CTE and medical marijuana.
The prevalence of CTE is “astounding” among American football players. One study found that of 202 football players, 87 percent had CTE. For the NFL players, it was 99 percent. Contact sports like rugby have followed this trend, showing worrying levels of CTE amongst their players.
Many NFL players are becoming increasingly concerned with the trauma they have suffered and the neurodegenerative disease it could cause. Training usually starts young, and repeated head trauma before the age of 12 leads to a much higher risk of developing CTE. Football players are now seeking compensation. In 2013 the NFL settled with ex-players for $765 million to compensate victims, promote research and pay for medical examinations. Publications like Sports Illustrated have been leading the charge in the battle for research and accountability. Companies like Kannalife Sciences have been researching the side effects of CTE and medical marijuana, and are discovering its neuroprotective properties.
It was thought that concussions were the leading cause of CTE, but it has been found that sub-concussive impacts are probably the largest factor. Because concussions lead to a player or fighter being assigned to the bench for some days or weeks, the brain is given time to heal, whereas the brain is given no such respite after a sub-concussive impact. Typical American football involves hit after hit to the head, relatively few of which are concussion. Therefore, it’s not surprising to see how much damage is being done to the brains of professional players.
This repeated damage is thought to cause a chronic inflammation and immune response in the brain. Alzheimer’s is thought to be the result in part of chronic inflammation and a faulty immune system attacking the brain itself, and the similarity of the two conditions leads scientists to think there are similar causes.
CTE is a severe neurodegenerative disorder. Symptoms can emerge as young as 17 years of age, but usually appear in the person’s 40’s or 50’s. CTE Symptoms include:
Mood and behavioural symptoms generally emerge first, followed by cognitive impairment, though both can emerge simultaneously. Generally, symptoms will worsen over time, although many patients are relatively stable for some time before suddenly deteriorating.
CTE and Medical Marijuana
There is hope that medical marijuana could be an effective preventative measure against some neurodegenerative disorders like CTE. Medical marijuana contains cannabinoids, which are neurotransmitters that the endocannabinoid system uses to communicate. This system is a huge array of receptors throughout the network of neurons in the brain and body. It heavily linked to the immune system and has a big impact on things like pain and mood. When a person ingests medical marijuana, it’s the effect on the ECS that creates the effects that are so pleasurable.
At the same time as being enjoyable to most people who take it, medical marijuana has a number of beneficial properties. Many of these come from the cannabinoid cannabidiol, otherwise known as CBD, which is known to have anti-inflammatory, mood stabilizing and anti-psychotic effects. CBD is derived from the seeds of the hemp plant and contains none of the properties which can cause a ‘high’ in users. It is hoped that CBD could provide some relief from symptoms of CTE or prevent them from occurring in the first place.
The main benefit of medical marijuana is its neuroprotective effects. Far from the mind destroying effects that many governments would like people to believe, medical marijuana appears to prevent damage to the brain and neurons. Exactly how it does this is not yet fully understood, but it is assumed that the anti-oxidative effects of many cannabinoids and the stimulation of the ECS by these cannabinoids make up for most of the effect.
One study published findings that showed how traumatic brain injury is significantly less fatal if the patient has tested positive for THC, a cannabinoid common in cannabis (the one that gets you “high”). This is serious and extremely promising evidence of the neuroprotective effects of cannabis.
To protect the brain is to protect the mind. CBD helps prevent cell death and increases the viability of cells after trauma. THC stops people from dying from head injuries. This is incredibly valuable, and the rush to develop more cannabis based treatments indicates how much interest there is in this field.
Hopefully, CTE and medical marijuana will continue to be explored further to help prevent this degenerative brain disease from progressing, or maybe even stop it from ever developing in the first place
Traumatic Brain Injury
Preventing head injuries in the first place involves playing differently. There is only so much danger you can take out of football before it becomes dull to watch or the game changes completely. As for combat, it is basically impossible to avoid head trauma. This is why avoiding CTE entirely becomes so difficult for professional athletes.
Medical marijuana is being investigated by pharmaceutical companies as a possible preventative to be taken at the time of a head injury to facilitate healing and stop the long term brain damage. How effective this will be is yet to be established, as no live trials have taken place, but there is hope for the sufferers of CTE and those afraid of developing the condition.
The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke is taking CTE very seriously, directing and funding much research into the area. Because the brain is so complex and varied, it will take a long time for the whole picture to become clear, but for now, there is enough clarity for hope. CTE and medical marijuana will go a long way together, it seems.
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