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Brain disease seen in 110 of 111 former NFL players studied

In a study of the brains of 111 deceased former NFL players who had concussion-related problems, 110 had signs of neurodegenerative disease found in autopsy. The new study – the largest of its kind to date — is certain to fuel new rounds of questions about concussions for the NFL and the league's players.

What they found: Researchers examined the brains of 202 former football players (ranging from a handful of high school players to more than 100 former NFL players) who donated their brains for research after they'd developed concussion-related symptoms during their lives. From this group, autopsy showed that 87% showed signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), which is the neurodegenerative disease normally associated with the type of head trauma players experience following repeated concussions. Among former NFL players included in the study, however, that number rose to 99% being diagnosed post-mortem.

An important caveat: The study authors, led by Ann McKee from the Boston University CTE Center, are careful to point out that the brains included in the research were from former players who were already experiencing symptoms and signs associated with CTE, and therefore represent a highly self-selected group. There were no brains from former NFL players who were free of CTE-related symptoms when they died.

Still, with the number of post-mortem CTE diagnoses this high among former NFL players, the study will certainly become a central point of discussion among the parties in the NFL dealing with this ongoing issue. They also acknowledge that other football-related factors – like when a player is first exposed to football, how long they played, what position they played, and the number of cumulative hits to the head they experienced as a player – also may influence a CTE diagnosis.

"In a convenience sample of deceased football players who donated their brains for research, a high proportion had neuropathological evidence of CTE, suggesting that CTE may be related to prior participation in football," the authors concluded.