Scientific and lay interest in negative outcomes associated with exposure to repetitive brain trauma (RBT) continues to strengthen. Concerns about the association between RBT and dementia began more than a century ago, but have resurfaced in the last decade with the more recently described chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). Chronic traumatic encephalopathy is a tauopathy associated with RBT that has become inextricably linked to conversations about sport-related concussion and mild traumatic brain injury. Accordingly, specific populations such as collision sport athletes and certain military personnel are of particular interest owing to their unique exposure to RBT. The gaps and controversies in our understanding of the epidemiologic factors, mechanism, and clinicopathological correlates of CTE reflect the current reliance on postmortem case series investigations. This review discusses the state of the science of CTE and raises considerations for researching and interpreting cognitive changes in members of at-risk populations.
The recent development of pathological diagnostic criteria for CTE represented an important step for differentiating CTE from other neurodegenerative diseases. By comparison, defining the clinical syndrome(s) associated with CTE and the necessary and sufficient symptoms needed for its diagnosis lags behind. The absence of validated in vivo biomarkers of pathological characteristics of CTE and longitudinal tracking with neuropsychological evaluation remains a significant hurdle. Attribution of candidate symptoms in retired athletes to CTE is complicated by the presence of multiple premorbid and comorbid factors affecting cognitive reserve that influence normal or expected cognitive functioning. This is a critical issue in appropriately defining reference groups for normative comparisons.
Conclusions and Relevance
Available data, while limited and complicated by selection bias, indicate that exposure to RBT represents the greatest risk factor for CTE pathological features, although clinicopathological correlates and the nature of onset and progression of symptoms are largely unknown. Considering aspects of cognitive reserve is likely essential for both interpreting cognitive outcomes associated with CTE and for developing preventive treatment programs. Research on CTE would benefit greatly from incorporating principles established within other areas of neurodegenerative disease and the nuances of clinicopathological considerations.
Asken BM, Sullan MJ, DeKosky ST, Jaffee MS, Bauer RM. Research Gaps and Controversies in Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy: A Review. JAMA Neurol. 2017;74(10):1255–1262. doi:10.1001/jamaneurol.2017.2396
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