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How Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy Works


The Future of CTE
Forensic pathologist and neuropathologist Dr. Bennet Omalu is credited with discovering chronic traumatic encephalopathy in former football players.
Forensic pathologist and neuropathologist Dr. Bennet Omalu is credited with discovering chronic traumatic encephalopathy in former football players.
Pete Marovich/Getty Images

Will Smith stars as the coroner Bennet Omalu in the recent film "Concussion." The movie follows the story of Omalu's groundbreaking autopsy of Mike Webster, his subsequent research into the prevalence of CTE in pro-football players and his efforts to publicize the results. Critics have noted that "Concussion" drastically oversimplifies the problem of CTE, altering Omalu's story to do so and drawing a direct line between Webster's early death and CTE. The film also claims that there's a causal link between CTE, depression and suicide. Statistically, this seems implausible. Studies have shown that ex-NFL players are less prone to depression than people in the population at large. They're also less likely to commit suicide — 59 percent less likely, to be precise. Not only that, the pros tend to have fewer illnesses and be longer-lived than the rest of us [sources: Engber, "Lies"; Engber, "Panic"].

So if they have more CTE but live longer, happier, healthier lives, what does that tell us about the disease? It may be that the consequences of having CTE are not quite as dire as some people fear. Perhaps most people can live with a little chronic traumatic encephalopathy and exhibit few symptoms.

The problem is, we just don't know. The science of CTE is only getting started. Critics aside, maybe "Concussion" will help mobilize public awareness and focus attention on the issue long enough to encourage more scientists to add to the growing body of research on the topic. In 2013 there was great excitement when it was announced that an "in vivo" test for CTE had been developed. Though the test has since proven unreliable, researchers remain hard at work trying to refine testing methods [source: Mez et al.].

But this raises another possible problem. What if neuropathologists come up with a perfect test that can say without a shadow of a doubt that you have CTE? What then? If people believe the disease will lead to inevitable mental decline, dementia, depression and death, they might take drastic measures. Perhaps, before a test is developed, it would be wise to determine just how debilitating CTE really is.


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