CTE and its violent underpining

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Google images – CTE
WESTBOROUGH, MA January 20, 2018 More is becoming known about Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy or CTE.  It is now able to be diagnosed prior to the death of the patient by identifying unique protein markers in the blood of those who have sustained multiple brain injuries.  Former professional wrestler Chris Benoit was found to have CTE after killing his wife and son before killing himself in 2007. But murder or other violence against others has not typically been associated with CTE until recently.  As recently as summer, 2017, the brain of former N.E. Patriots star Aaron Hernandez was also found to have signs of severe CTE raising the specter of its possible impact on his violent life and eventual death by suicide. I have posted post-mortem photos of his brain first published on the Boston University site in a prior blog on my Concussion site (Sefton, 2017).  See that post by clicking here.  It is now understood that an athlete need not have sustained numerous concussions in his career to be found to have CTE at time of death.  More so, the accumulation of repeated blows to the head – subconcussive force – is being implicated in the etiology of this complex disease process. So contact sports like football, rugby and ice hockey are being closely scrutinized by experts in concussion, athletic training and sports medicine.  Researchers at BU School of Medicine have reported that a protein known as CLL11 may be elevated in the brain and spinal fluid of athletes with a history of brain injury.  It holds some promise of being able to diagnose athletes before death.  This protein leads to elevate Tau protein a known cause of progressive brain damage associated with dementia.
In 2014, The K.C. Star reported that analysis of Belcher’s brain after he’d been exhumed revealed a key signature of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, best known as CTE, a degenerative brain disease found to cause dementia, confusion, depression and aggression). “Belcher’s murder-suicide is the worst possible example of domestic violence, and these findings come as the NFL is under attack for its handling of domestic violence.” (Mellinger, 2014 Kansas City Star). 
“CTE has been found to cause erratic and sometimes tragic behavior by some NFL players, perhaps most notably Hall of Fame linebacker Junior Seau, who killed himself last year. The disease, only recently diagnosable before death, has often been found in former and longtime football players.” Mellinger, 2014 K.C. Star
 Riding a bicycle is a leading cause of brain injury in childhood. Recently, CTE has not been diagnosable before death. It has been found over and over in former and longtime football players. Domestic violence behaviors cut across all socioeconomic strata.  They germinate in an environment of secrecy often early in courtship.  During this time abusive spouse slowly isolates his intimate partner from her support – family, friends, finances.  “In doing so there is a subtle but undeniable manipulation of control – usually coupled with threats and intimidation.  There is growing awareness that red flag behaviors precede DV and domestic violence homicide.  Things like pathological jealousy, forced sexual contact, manipulating friendships, detachment from members of immediate family and others are the early signs of domestic violence.” (Sefton, 2012)  Some believe that the most significant pre-incident red flag is whether or not the victim truly believes she is going to be killed by her intimate partner one day and that these victims are at most risk of death.

Sefton, M (2012) Athletes and Celebrities Not Immuned: Kansas City Chief’s player kills wife and self in act of DVH, Blog post December 1, 2014, taken December 28, 2017. 
Sefton, M. (2017). Brain and Behavior: B.U. scientist says Aaron Hernandez had CTE. Blog post, Nov 19, 2017 Taken December 28, 2017
Read more here: http://www.kansascity.com/sports/nfl/kansas-city-chiefs/article2296030.html#storylink=cpy
Read more here: http://www.kansascity.com/sports/spt-columns-blogs/vahe-gregorian/article187534063.html#storylink=cpy
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Once common treatment of concussion

Head injuries at the time were treated as mere nuisances. Players reacted to violent head blows by trying to blink away their blurred vision, shake the ringing from their skulls, and trundle back to their huddles, unless they were flagged by sideline doctors. Even then, they generally returned quickly to action.  Boston Globe October 2017

Neurological trauma and enduring change in survivors

Westborough, MA December 18, 2017 The British Medical Journal Lancet recently published a series of articles describing the long-term effects of brain trauma. The series is worth a serious read for those who are in the position to take care of trauma patients.

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There has been little change in our approach to handling the individual grind of caring for the TBI patient I must sadly admit.  Young and old it takes both patience and dedication to achieve the best outcomes with those we bring into our treatment continuum. “Survivors experience a substantial burden of physical, psychiatric, emotional, and cognitive disabilities, which disrupt the lives of individuals and their families, and pose huge costs to society” according the Lancet, 2017.  Many readers have read my post Updates in these pages where I have detailed well-known athletes like Formula 1 car driver Michael Schumacher and Mike Towell, the Irish boxer both of whom were seriously injured from TBI.  Towell died from injuries linked to second impact syndrome following a match in 2016.
Schumacher remains in a minimally conscious state in Switzerland.  He is conscious but does not speak or move about.  He requires 24 hour medical care and is living is a special suite adapted in his home that allows him to continue to receive the best care possible while being in his familiar setting surrounded by family and friends.  The cost of his care exceeds $ 100,000 per month.
Some reports suggest Mr. Trowell had sustained a brain injury in the early rounds of the fight.  “Essentially, “second impact syndrome” or SIS results from the brain’s inability to autoregulate cerebral perfusion pressure and swelling as a result of repeated cerebral trauma.” Sefton, 2016 on second impact syndrome and Mike Trowell
Autonomic regulation is the role of the brain stem that maintains the diurnal pattern of arousal for wakeful activity and sleep hygiene.  The brain stem regulates heart rate and respiratory drive as well.  These functions are vital to survival and comprise the autonomic nervous system.  The ANS functions as the brain and body’s alarm system signaling the need for fight-flight activation according to a Autonomic Storming post by Michael Sefton, Ph.D.
Lancet identifies the complexity of TBI and its multifactorial underpinning.  A growing number of patients are elderly that contribute to “heterogeneity of outcomes and consider ways forward for targeted management of severe TBI in the intensive care unit” as mentioned in the 2017 Lancet summary.  Improved management of TBI in the trauma centers and ICUs bring forth better rehabilitation candidates and better outcomes including return to home and eventually return to preinjury employment for many.  Surgical intervention crafted to decrease secondary injury to brain have been enhanced by improved diagnostic accumen, imaging and novel techniques such as radical craniectomy and cranioplasty for management of intracranial pressure and its associated edema.
The series also explains PSH or “autonomic storming” something that I have described in several posts and can be quite serious both in the trauma canter and later in the rehabilitation hospital   “Geert Meyfroidt and colleagues provide an overview of paroxysmal sympathetic hyperactivity, a consequence of acute brain injury, and discuss the promise of improved characterization and implications for management”. Damage to the system that regulates sympathetic and parasympathetic functioins due to traumatic brain injury can be unsettling for familiy members and clinicians alike. The recovering subject can have wild swings of autonomic arousal such as elevated heart rate – patients sometimes chug along at 140-160 while autonomic storming.  Paroxysmal changes in blood pressure may pose significant risk, respiratory rate may become tachypnic, patients frequent are febrile and may become excessively sweaty  as a consequence of autonomic dysfunction.  Patients in our rehabilitation frequently undergo repeated blood cultures and lab studies looking for a source of infection.  Many are returned to the trauma centers for additional brain imaging studies and cardiac monitoring that takes hours and is often unneccessary.  These procedures delay recovery and add confusion to the patient and his family.
The regulation of the secondary injuries such as paroxysmal sympathetic hyperactivity is essential for patient well-being and outcome measures including returning home and re-entering the work force. The Lancet series is a well written update on current brain injury treatment and management of this serious public health threat.

 Lancet Neuology (2017) Jun;16(6):452-464. doi: 10.1016/S1474-4422(17)30118-7. Traumatic Brain Injury. Taken 12-18-2017.

Brain and Behavior: B.U. scientist says Aaron Hernandez had CTE

Westborough, MA November 18, 2017 The NFL has some explaining to do. Why are former athletes killing themselves and in some cases other people? As students studying the brain it was something special when you could make a correlation between an identified brain lesion and the behavior you are seeing.  I was in China in early November 2017 at a conference on RNA targeted therapy for cancer.  As the non-scientist in the group I was referred to as the clinician who saw the phenotype rather than the genotype – referring to the innumerable genetic underpinnings of cellular biology and changing science of modified nucleotides.  I understood this to have some meaningful interest to the faculty that consisted of 3 prior Nobel laureates and leading scientists in RNA targeted therapy.  So after sitting through hours of presentations I realize the importance of not making a rush to judgment about the cause of some predicted outcome. As a neuropsychologist we are asked to make assumptions about brain integrity after CNS infarcts and make educated predictions about the functional implication of focal lesions in brain.
Recently the scientists at Boston University announced the results of the post-mortem analysis of the brain of Aaron Hernandez, former N.E. Patriots receiver and convicted murderer.  Hernandez had his conviction expunged after he died while his case was on appeal. The 27-year old brain was highly suggestive of having the tell tale signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy or CTE thought to be the result of repeated concussions and now realized as the result of hundreds – perhaps thousands of sub-concussive blows to the head that accumulate over time.  Hernandez’s brain was the youngest of the donated brains to be identified with advanced CTE. Hernandez played football for 17 years starting when he was a young boy. The question remains did the brain damage that was identified in the post-mortem analysis cause behavior change in Hernandez and could the murder of Odin Lloyd be attributed to the build up of dangerous tau protein in his brain?
“While no one can prove a causal link between Hernandez’s brain damage and his actions, there is little dispute that he displayed CTE symptoms associated with behavioral problems, such as aggressiveness, explosiveness, impulsivity, and suicide.”
Boston Globe Bob Hohler November 9, 2017
By history Aaron Hernandez was an angry, impulsive and violent teenager that his mother reported began when his father died suddenly. Coupled with this was a biological proclivity toward degenerative brain disorders such as Alzheimer’s Disease and CTE.  Both are diagnosed only after the death of the victim. We know that brain-behavior relationships exist from research in stroke and traumatic brain injury where focal injuries result in specific and expected changes in behavior.  These often result from a disconnection between functional centers of the brain including limbic structures that link centers for emotional regulation and the frontal system that exerts inhibitory control over those emotions. The athlete’s who have donated their brain’s upon their death have almost universally exhibited changes in behavior including poor impulse control, depression, and anger.

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BU Medical School and WCVB images 2017

The results of postmortem examination of over 100 brains of NFL athletes are in

WESTBOROUGH,MA July 25, 2017 The laboratory at the Boston University School of Medicine has recently completed its initial examination of over 100 brains donated by the family members of those athletes who have died because of marked behavior and personality changes attributed to playing football.  The results confirm the presence of destructive proteins that have come to be known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy.  This was first reported over 10 years ago and was featured in the movie Concussion released in 2015 starring Will Smith as Bennet Omalu, M.D. who first reported on the syndrome.

What happens to the brain when concussed? See for yourself in CDC video just published

WESTBOROUGH, MA April 21, 2017  There has been a great deal of research published recently about the cumulative impact of concussion.  Every athlete who experiences a concussion has a unique trajectory toward recovery.  It is well-known that athlete’s who experience  a second or third concussion may be at risk for long-term cognitive symptoms unless they rest until the symptoms are fully resolved. It is now expected that each recovery is different and should be tailored for the presenting symptom profile and the athlete’s medical history. A combination of rest and controlled exertion seems to work best for recovery.  Balance and vestibular changes from concussion require physical therapy in the days after injury. We offer these services at Whittier Rehabilitation Hospital. In cases of second or third concussion the recovery can be very different and often prolonged.
There are dozens of You Tube videos that I have posted in these pages illustrating the brain as it becomes concussed. On my first website nearly 20 years ago I purchased a .gif program to illustrate the movement of the brain during a concussion – like the one below.  It cost me nearly $100 to download and post on my website.  Now they are available free of cost and easily posted to social media.
A concussion is a traumatic brain injury resulting from force causing energy to pass through the brain resulting in the brain shaking within the skull.  A study published in January 2016 in the Journal of Pediatrics suggests that preadolescent boys are at higher risk of concussion when playing on varsity ice hockey teams.  The study at Hasbro Children’s Hospital in Providence, RI also suggested that girls playing ice hockey who are heavier may be at greater risk for concussion.  On average, the preadolescent boys in the study took 54 days to become symptom free.
Here is a link to another very useful video produced by a Canadian physician Dr. Mike Evans. I often have families watch this 10 minute video before initiating our conversation.  The point is that the brain is seriously impacted by energy pulsating through the skull from whatever cause.  I have seen several snow boarders this winter. Spring sports usually see an uptick of concussions in lacrosse and girl’s softball.  Concussion can be expected to effect all cognitive functioning including concentration, speed of mental processing, problem solving, memory, and behavior.

Brain, Concussion and Stress: Health effects and post-concussion syndrome

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Amygdala highlighted is over active when stress exists and raises the body’s threat level as shown in this BBC graphic
WESTBOROUGH, MA January 15, 2107 The human cost of stress has been well-studied and the effects of stress are a well-known cause of cardiovascular illness including heart attack and stoke.  It is now known that the brain plays a big role in all of this. The human stress response elevates heart functioning – especially blood pressure and normal heart rhythms in unhealthy ways.  Stress activates the amygdala in the brain by tricking it – as if some great threat exists.  People believe that the body’s autonomic nervous system can be thrown off after a concussion slowly becoming irregular resulting from an abnormal stress response. There is a deactivation of inhibitory neurons in the brain resulting in greater sympathetic activity. This involves progressive relaxation and guided imagery that can slowly lower the tension felt in the body.
Symptoms of concussion are known to elevate the sympathetic nervous system over time. Known as the fight-flight mechanism, stress activates the mechanism in the brain that prepares us each for battle.  This level of tension can only last for so long without needing a break. That is where the parasympathetic system comes in putting the brakes on the body allowing it to rest. The brain stem regulates heart rate and respiratory drive as well.  These functions are vital to survival and comprise the autonomic nervous system.
Study: Overactive system of emotional drive
Many believe that an overactive system in the brain results in the elevation of the autonomic nervous system. A Harvard study followed 300 patients for several years and found that those with an overactive amygdala were more likely to have cardiovascular disease and be at greater risk for stroke and heart attack. The amygdala is a tiny organ responsible for the emotions such as fear or pleasure.  It also plays a role in the systemic inflammatory response that may prolong the symptoms associated with concussion. “Heart experts said at-risk patients should be helped to manage stress” according to a BBC publication taken from Lancet.
The protocol I use involves paced breathing and heart rate entrainment as a way of putting the brakes on stress. But it takes time and American’s want instant fixes. Mindfulness requires self-monitoring and personal reflection.  If more people understood the health cost of stress and were able to identify high stress lifestyles then they might make behavioral changes that can lower the risk for cardiovascular disease later on.

The protocol quickly assists in helping patients find a balance or resonance between sympathetic and parasympathetic systems in the body using controlled, paced, breathing and prototypic progressive relaxation” according to Michael Sefton, Ph.D., Director of Psychological and Neuropsychological services at Whittier Rehabilitation Hospital in Westborough, MA.

In several blog posts I have illustrated the potential negative health effects of high stress and physical functioning for which I am providing biofeedback at Whittier Rehabilitation Hospital in Massachusetts. This process helps put the brakes on the stress response and quiet the body.  The effects of concussion slowly elevate autonomic response adding to tension and physical malfunctioning. The biofeedback protocol helps lower the human cost of stress and the body’s inflammatory response and may lower feelings of tension and anxiety.  In doing so a rise in physical and emotional well-being may be expected.

BBC report http://www.bbc.com/news/health-38584975, taken January 14, 2017
WebMD post,  http://www.webmd.com/brain/news/20170111/stress-ball-in-your-brain-may-be-key-to-heart-risks#2, taken January 14, 2017
Sefton, M. (2016) Coincident stress may contribute to post concussion symptoms, blog post, https://concussionassessment.wordpress.com/2016/09/26/coincident-stress-may-contribute-to-pcs/, taken January 14, 2017