For years, the connection between the neurodegenerative disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) and contact sports has been disputed. But the U.S. National Institute of Health’s recent acknowledgment of a causal link between repeated blows to the head and CTE leaves little room for debate.
DocWire News spoke with Jay Matey—VP and Executive Director of the United Brain Association (UBA)—to discuss what this landmark decision means for the future of CTE research, what CTE is, what makes it so deadly, and the actions that sports organizations should take to protect their players.
DocWire News: Can you provide us with some professional background on yourself?
Jay Matey: My name is Jay Matey. I’m an electrical engineer by trade. I graduated from Clarkson in 1982. I worked as an engineer for 20 years, moved into project management, into construction management to globally, and retired a couple years ago. I met John Bolton on a social event and he’s also an electrical engineer. We kind of had a common interest in brain science, and the next thing you know, he’s got United … We started as American Brain Society. After doing some market research, we morphed into United Brain Association and here we are today speaking. So I’ve been here since about 2018. The company started in about 2018 and part of the investigation as to what it is we really could do meant putting together a marketing and business plan where we realized that our best reach to people was using United Brain Association as our moniker. United speaking more to the unification of the neurological aspects of the mind and the psychological aspects of the mind.
We find that the comorbidities between neurological disorders and other psychological disorders just jumped right off the page. We host right now 300 brain and mental health resources on our website out of the 600 known today in modern science. And in so doing, up-keeping the list of disorders, we have a matrix that lists all the comorbidities between each disease, disorder and others, and the overlap is amazing, hence we treat it all as one mind. The issues occur in one mind and often have many different sub-components to them. So that’s us, that’s me, and gives you in a nutshell who we are.
What’s the overall history of CTE in sports?
CTE is a relatively new discovery. Mike Webster in 2005 was the first professional football player to be diagnosed with CTE, and there were various other players in other sports across the industry. Paul Pender, a boxer is the first case discovered at the VA, the Veteran’s Administration, and at Boston University through their brain bank, and he passed away in 2003. Unfortunately, CTE is only determined postmortem at present. Boston University is making some tremendous progress at coming up with tests that can look in living to detect CTE, and that has to do with tau proteins and other associated byproducts that can be screened and looked at through spinal tap and other cerebral fluid assays.
So CTE and its correlation with repetitive head injury has been guess surmised and now documented since Mike Webster. The National Football League has made a couple settlements through the Players Association. One, I forget the year, let’s say 10 years ago was some 4,000 players. There’s another one currently being adjudicated that’s over 1,800 players. I listed all their names on a blog that we have on our website. It’s amazing the correlation between time played, age, and the onset of CTE. The longer you play, the older you get, the more likely you get to a hundred percent diagnosis of CTE, unfortunately posthumously.
And the data to support that, Boston University, I think, well, they’re not the only ones, but they’re the ones I go to because they’re closest, has some tremendous data in support of these repetitive head injury, age of player in onset of CTE. And CTE is a … They’re lesions that occur in the [inaudible 00:04:20] region. That’s in the deep folds of your brain. Some of them are related with that famous tau protein that’s often the key to Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, many of the dementia related brain disorders. But it’s not easily detected and it can’t be picked up in scans. It has to be done in autopsy afterward.
CTE is perhaps most associated with sports like boxing, and American football, but are athletes in other sports susceptible?
Hockey has a high susceptibility rate because there is a lot more physical contact involving heads into glass, into ice, et cetera, et cetera, especially in youth hockey. Especially in youth hockey where kids don’t have the same level of protection that the pros do. Just a simple fall backwards onto the back of your head. Yeah, you might joke and say, “I dented the ice,” but there are a couple different reactions that occur. Your brain oscillates inside that cerebral fluid and impacts your skull, and swelling occurs almost instantaneously, and it sometimes can and sometimes cannot be detected.
But there are basic neurological symptoms and indicators, inability to track with vision, loss of coordination, loss of coherent speech. There are a number of different indicators, but some of the youth sports are almost as dangerous as the professional sports because as parents we don’t necessarily appreciate nor have to our avail the protective gear necessary. So there’s also, you know, you get into the military, any motocross riders, we talked about boxers, mixed martial arts fighters. Any sport where there’s head contact, you’re going to find CTE, but it falls into that curve. How many impacts you have, how old you are, and the severity of the impacts are the three elements that determine the frequency of occurrence.
What in your estimation can be done to decrease the risk of CTE in pro sports?
That’s the best question you can ask because it’s one that we can actually act upon. Education is the starting answer because as you learn that you are susceptible to these things, you smarten up and start to protect yourself. There are 10 leading sports manufacturers that work with protective headgear across the spectrum of NFL through horse riding, and each and every year they come out with a better energy absorbing helmet. The idea is to decrease the acceleration of your brain against your skull. So it’s not just padding, it’s also absorptive materials, energy attenuators in the helmet. That thumb shape cut out in the front of NFL helmets at current, that helps to take some of the energy of a head-to-head contact, dissipate it in the shell of the helmet, and then transfer the shock energy through the padding of the helmet onto your brain.
Unless you’re Tom Brady who maintains that he is callous to head injury and his body has learned to deal with it. He’s my favorite quarterback of all time, but I wish he hadn’t made that statement. It’s impossible. Anyway, so protective headgear is number one, and training. So the training comes into football coaches teaching their players how to tackle correctly, soccer coaches teaching players how to head the ball. Being aware, situational awareness, especially in soccer or even hockey where another head is within microns of yours, being able to pull back, et cetera.
Hopefully as people understand the sense of urgency and the importance of reducing head impact, it won’t be cool to head a ball that’s coming down from a thousand feet high, or my fraternity brothers, soccer friends used to love to head posts in our basement just to show that they could. That stuff’s just pointless. And I think as we understand the fact that these bunks on the noggin really make a difference, and education then becomes my first answer.
What are some key takeaways you would like to leave our audience with today?
Remember you only get one brain, although it has billions of neurons in it, they’re easily damaged. And the smartest thing you can do for yourself every day is to be aware of what’s around you so that you don’t get into head impact situations. In a car, wear your seatbelt. Contact sports, wear your protective helmet. Bicycle riding as kids, wear that helmet. You get one chance to sustain a traumatic brain injury that you never recover from. So you might be the geek on the street wearing the helmet when the rest of the cool kids aren’t. What’s it worth?