What is CTE? Ex-Broncos star Demaryius Thomas' death 'a wake-up call' for NFL players: Experts

According to the Boston University CTE Center, CTE is a degenerative brain disease found in those who have a history of repetitive brain trauma


                            What is CTE? Ex-Broncos star Demaryius Thomas' death 'a wake-up call' for NFL players: Experts
Demaryius Thomas (pictured) died of stage 2 (of 4) Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), his family announced on Tuesday, July 5 (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
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The family of the former NFL wide receiver Demaryius Thomas announced on Tuesday, July 5, that Boston University CTE Center researchers diagnosed the former NFL wide receiver with stage 2 (of 4) Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), a form of brain degeneration that has been found in other athletes. Thomas, 33, was found dead in his Georgia home in December, 2021. The Fulton County Medical Examiner's Office said a copy of his autopsy report was not ready for release.

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"Thomas's family released the findings of his brain study through the Concussion Legacy Foundation (CLF), which arranged the brain donation, to help raise awareness of CTE and encourage the football community to support research," Concussion Legacy Foundation said in a press release on Tuesday, July 5. Thomas' mother, Katina Smith revealed that she began to notice certain symptoms in Thomas. "Thomas suffered from depression, anxiety, and panic attacks and had trouble with his memory," the foundation said.

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Risks of playing football 

“Once I became aware of CTE and began to familiarize myself with the symptoms, I noticed that Demaryius was isolating himself and I saw other changes in him,” said Smith in the statement. “He was just so young, and it was horrible to see him struggle. His father and I hope all families learn the risks of playing football. We don’t want other parents to have to lose their children like we did".

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"Like so many that have gone before, we found stage 2 CTE in the brain of Demaryius Thomas. The question I keep asking myself is 'When will enough be enough?' When will athletes, parents and the public at large stop ignoring the risks of American football and insist that the game be changed to reduce subconcussive hits and that the athletes be comprehensively evaluated at the beginning and end of every season?” said Dr Ann McKee, chief of neuropathology for the VA Boston Healthcare System said in the statement.

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Wide receiver Demaryius Thomas #88 of the Denver Broncos pumps up the crowd after scoring a first quarter touchdown against the New York Jets at Sports Authority Field at Mile High on December 10, 2017 in Denver, Colorado (Photo by Justin Edmonds/Getty Images)

LaTonya Bonseigneur, Thomas' cousin, had said the family believed his death was related to a seizure. She said he had suffered seizures for more than a year before he died. Many athletes suffer from CTE and many of them have died in recent years.

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Deaths in NFL due to CTE

According to 2017 study on brains of deceased gridiron football players, 99% of tested brains of NFL players, 88% of Canadian Football League (CFL) players, 64% of semi-professional players, 91% of college football players, and 21% of high school football players had various stages of CTE. However, this study had several limitations, including possible selection bias as families of players with symptoms of CTE are far more likely to donate brains to research than those without signs of the disease.

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In 2020, football player Tyler Hilinski, who was the Washington State quarterback died because of chronic traumatic encephalopathy. On July 27, 2012, an autopsy report concluded that the former Atlanta Falcons safety Ray Easterling, who died from suicide in April 2012, had CTE. In April 2021, ex-cornerback Phillip Adam who shot himself and also shot six other people was suffering from CTE, which prompted his actions. After Adam's death, NFL was slammed for ignoring Adam's plea for help. Former New England Patriots player Aaron Hernandez suffered severe damage to parts of the brain that play an important role in memory, impulse control and behavior, Dr McKee who studied his brain after his death had previously said. 

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“The football community would have no idea why so many former players struggle with neurological disorders after their career without the families who say yes to brain donation, so I want to thank Bobby Thomas and Katina Smith - and all families - for their trust in Dr McKee and this team,” said Dr Nowinski, a former football player at Harvard University. “I hope this is a wake-up call to high profile current and former NFL players that CTE is rampant among them, and they need to get involved in creating real solutions. CTE should be their number one off-the-field issue,” he added.

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What is chronic traumatic encephalopathy?

According to the Boston University CTE Center, Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy is a degenerative brain disease found in athletes, military veterans, and others with a history of repetitive brain trauma. In CTE, a protein called tau misfolds and malfunctions, causing other proteins to misfold and set off a chain reaction where this malfunctioning tau slowly spreads throughout the brain, killing brain cells. CTE has been seen in people as young as 17, but symptoms do not generally begin appearing until years after the onset of head impacts. As per the research, CTE is most common in athletes and military veteran because of the repetitive hits on the head that causes this serious disease.

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According to the Concussion Legacy Foundation, Thomas' death may be related to an epileptic seizure since late-stage CTE can be associated with epilepsy, it is far more likely that he developed post-traumatic epilepsy after a motor vehicle accident and fall he experienced several years before his death. Thomas is one of more than 300 former NFL players who have been diagnosed with CTE by Dr McKee and the BU CTE Center research team. Concussion Legacy Foundation CEO and co-founder Dr Nowinski reached out to the Thomas family to propose the CTE study. Thomas' family agreed to make the donation to learn more about CTE and help others.

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