Quick: What topic could get guys from the Nevada Athletic Commission, representatives of college football and the U.S. Surgeon General together in a room with a bunch of neurologists? The answer: Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, a neurodegenerative disease related to repeated head trauma.
That was the crowd gathered Sept. 30-Oct. 1 for a conference at the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health. Day one kicked off with horrifying video, including football players (from Pop Warner to professional) ramming helmets, and boxers speaking in slurred sentences after years of taking blows to the head.
“The public thinks we know a lot more than we actually do,” said Robert Stern, Boston University professor of neurology and neurosurgery who co-chaired the conference. While scientists at BU have conducted extensive studies of the pathology in brains postmortem, they’re still struggling to pin it down in living patients.
The disease, however, is believed to be widespread. Surgeon General Regina Benjamin described it as a public health problem about which her office is eager to spread awareness among Americans. Distinguishing CTE from other neurodegenerative diseases common among athletes, such as Alzheimer’s and Lou Gehrig’s disease (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), is one of the obstacles to knowing its true prevalence.
Following Sunday’s general sessions, which gave overviews of the disease in contact sports, combat sports and war, on Monday discussions focus on recent research.
The event also gives the Las Vegas clinic a chance to show off its Frank Gehry-designed facility to the top minds in one of its main fields. Charles Bernick, a Ruvo Center neurologist and co-chair of the conference, is leading the center’s study of brain health in pro fighters and recently started a clinic for athletes who’ve retired from sports with high risk for neurodegenerative diseases.