Autopsy study finds signs of CTE in young deceased athletes.

Autopsy study finds signs of CTE in young deceased athletes.

The Silent Danger: Early Signs of CTE Found in Young Amateur Athletes


The world of sports has long been aware of the potential consequences of repetitive brain trauma caused by contact sports such as football. However, shocking new research has revealed that chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease, can onset much earlier than previously thought possible. In fact, early signs of CTE have been found in the brains of amateur athletes who tragically died young.

This groundbreaking study analyzed brain autopsies of 152 athletes, all of whom engaged in contact sports where head impacts are routine and passed away before the age of 30. Astonishingly, almost 40% of these young athletes had already developed early signs of CTE during their teenage years and twenties. Even more surprising is that the majority of those diagnosed with CTE were not professional players, but rather young amateurs with a love for their sport.

Dr. Ann McKee, professor of neurology and pathology at Boston University, explains, “CTE is a neurodegenerative disease caused by repetitive hits to the head that has been found most often in contact sport athletes.” While previous research has primarily focused on the risks faced by professional athletes, this study reveals a critical insight. CTE can begin as early as 17 years old and can develop in a range of sports including soccer, rugby, ice hockey, football, and wrestling, even among amateurs.

Although the findings are striking, they are not wholly unexpected for experts like Dr. Daniel Daneshvar, chief of the division of brain injury rehabilitation at Harvard Medical School. He notes, “A hit to the head has the same risk of damage, whether or not you’re getting paid.” The threat of brain damage transcends the level of competition, affecting both professional and amateur athletes alike.

To conduct this research, the study focused on the “UNITE Brain Bank” at Boston University, which holds the world’s largest collection of nervous system tissue samples from deceased athletes. Brain autopsies were the only conclusive means of diagnosing CTE in this study. The majority of athletes who donated their brains (93%) were male, and most were white. They had tragically passed away between 2008 and 2022, with an average age of 23.

The research highlighted that nearly 60% of the brain donors were amateur athletes, with football being their main sport in approximately 60% of cases, followed by soccer, hockey, and wrestling. Significantly, the study also included the first American female athlete, a college soccer player, to be diagnosed with CTE. The athlete’s identity remains protected for privacy reasons.

Using the donated brain tissue, the researchers examined for various neurodegenerative damages, including CTE, strokes, arterial hardening, blockages or stiffness, as well as damage to white matter tissue responsible for memory, balance, and mobility. The families of these athletes were also asked to provide their own recollections of the athlete’s behavior, moods, and thinking issues before their untimely deaths.

Ultimately, the study found that over 40% of the athletes, regardless of their amateur or professional status, had been diagnosed with CTE. Furthermore, approximately 70% of those diagnosed were amateur football, hockey, soccer, rugby, or wrestling players. Athletes with CTE tended to be slightly older (25 years old) than those with healthy brains (21 years old) and had longer participation in their respective sports (nearly 12 years versus under 9 years). Most of those with CTE were classified as having a “mild” form of the disease.

Even among athletes without indications of CTE, signs of trouble were not far behind. According to families’ reports, about 70% of the athletes had struggled with depression and apathy. Additionally, nearly 60% exhibited behavioral control problems, while a similar number faced decision-making difficulties. Approximately 40% battled alcohol abuse, and a comparable percentage dealt with drug abuse. However, it is important to note that these issues may not be directly caused by CTE alone, as other head injuries and unrelated physical or mental health problems might also contribute.

While the study provides valuable insights, it is essential to recognize its limitations. The research was based on a brain donation case series and not a study of the general population. Brain donors tend to represent a select group with higher brain injury symptoms than the average athlete. Dr. Daniel Daneshvar reminds us that loved ones of individuals who tragically die by suicide due to depression, for instance, are more inclined to donate their brain for further examination.

In light of these findings, Dr. Ann McKee emphasizes the need for broader changes in high-impact sports to minimize head impacts. She advocates for measures such as eliminating practice drills involving head impacts, discontinuing heading in soccer and checking in hockey, reducing game length and frequency, delaying the start of contact sports until later in life, and enhanced health monitoring for athletes. Importantly, these changes should be implemented across all levels of sports, including amateur and youth programs.

CTE poses a silent danger to athletes, one that can strike with devastating consequences at a young age. By raising awareness and implementing effective prevention measures, we can safeguard the health and well-being of athletes in the pursuit of their passions.

More information

For more information on CTE and the impact on sports, visit the Boston University CTE Center.