Discussing CTE with an EWU expert


Mckenzie Ford

EWU and Northern Arizona players at the line of scrimmage during a play on Nov. 2, 2019.

By Drew Lawson, Sports Editor

A CTE Q&A with a psychology professor 


Would you let your child play football?

This is a question many parents are attempting to answer with the constantly evolving research surrounding head injuries in contact sports. Concerns around football have become more paramount with the study of CTE or chronic traumatic encephalopathy. 

But what is CTE? How does it affect the brain? How risky is it for people of any age to play football?

The Easterner’s Drew Lawson sat down with Dr. Jonathan Anderson, a dean and professor of psychology at EWU. Anderson’s area of expertise is traumatic brain injuries, and he shared his thoughts on CTE from a football perspective and gave insight into how it affects the brain. Anderson is also a football fan and supports the Seattle Seahawks and EWU football teams. 

This Q&A features some significant portions of the interview. A more detailed Q&A will be made available on theeasterner.org.

Drew Lawson: How would you describe CTE to a less informed audience?

Dr. Jonathan Anderson: CTE was originally named dementia pugilistica. The old-time boxers or pugilists … it’s common for them to develop dementia later on in their life. What they noticed is that others who were sustaining chronic blows to the head were resulting also in dementia-like presentations. They switched the name to chronic traumatic encephalopathy, because they recognized that it’s more than just being punched in the head. Rather, it’s chronic, over time. Traumatic, so immediate. Encephalopathy is a swelling of the brain tissue … so (CTE) is a sudden swelling of the brain tissue that occurs multiple times chronically over one’s life. 

“Playing football doesn’t guarantee you’ll end up with CTE.” -Dr. Jonathan Anderson, Dean and Professor of Psychology at EWU.

DL: In research that’s been done on CTE … a lot of that research has been done in the last five years. There’s four stages of CTE. For people that play contact sports, have studies shown that people who suffer from CTE are more likely to suffer from one (specific) stage?

JA: No, there’s a lot of variables that go into it. Playing football doesn’t guarantee you’ll end up with CTE. Similarly, individuals that don’t play football can end up with CTE. There are tons of things that play into it, genetics being one of those. How your brain is healing after an injury is another. 

DL: How do genetics factor in?

JA: People respond to trauma in different ways. They heal in different ways. 

DL: Do you think there’s a quote-unquote “safe” age to play football?

JA: Yes and no. There is massive amount of brain development that is occurring within the younger ages. However, the interesting thing about the research in football is that they were finding that the younger kids were tackling harder in practice than they were during the games. The recommendation from that was, “don’t have the same impact in practice that is currently occurring, because that’s not what’s occurring in the games.”

Photo by: Anna Mills
The women’s rugby team in a scrum with the Central Washington rugby team. The game ended early due to injuries sustained by members of CWU.

DL: Do you think (safety) steps are being made since CTE came to the forefront?

JA: I do! I see changes to the NFL rules that have increased player safety. The helmet technology has improved. 

DL: Did you hear about the studies being done on (former NFL tight end and convicted murderer) Aaron Hernandez’s brain (after his death)?

JA: I did not. But … the Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver (Chris Henry) who got thrown out of the back of a truck and got injured … they autopsied his brain, and to the best of my recollection, he had no documented concussions on file, and they found CTE in his brain, suggesting that subthreshold chronic brain impact can result in the disease-or he covered up his concussions. 

DL: Is dementia the most common side effect of (CTE)?

JA: Mood swings and irritability. Headaches. 

DL: One interesting theory is surrounding (former NFL wide receiver) Antonio Brown … going back and forth. Some days he’s saying “I want to play football, I’m sorry for all the things I’ve done,” other days he’s doing all sorts of crazy stuff. A lot of people are throwing the CTE word around. What do you make of that?

JA: At this point it’s nothing but speculation. The other thing is, the evidence about football resulting in CTE, is there’s no guarantee. There’s no guarantee you’ll end up with CTE. The evidence we have, though compelling, is correlational. If you look at football, look at the brains, they can see evidence of CTE in different stages, but it doesn’t necessarily guarantee it. Even then, the brain is really a remarkable organ where you can have evidence of dementia … and yet functionally, have no signs of it. 

DL: Is it possible to diagnose (CTE) while the person is still living?

JA: Yes, and the evidence and testing for that is becoming more and more readily available. 

“Even then, the brain is really a remarkable organ where you can have evidence of dementia … and yet functionally, have no signs of it.”-Dr. Jonathan Anderson, Dean and Professor of Psychology at EWU.

DL: What steps are being taken to treat it?

JA: Prevention. Afterwards, it’s symptom management. 

DL: Is it more of a trend for people to get diagnosed at older ages because they played football back … when it wasn’t as safe, or do people of all ages get diagnosed (equally)?

JA: I wouldn’t speculate that the increase in dementia rates is due to unsafe football in the past. There’s a lot of different factors that can play into that, genetics being one.

DL: What other factors play in?

JA: There’s probably environmental factors that we just don’t know of. 

DL: What are some other interesting things you’ve learned about CTE in your time of study?

JA: It affects individuals differently. You think about (former Chicago Bears quarterback) Jim McMahon; he’s really out on the forefront. When he’s interviewed, he’s got light sensitivity (which is also common), so he wears big sunglasses. He talks about the impact that has, and all the symptoms he’s had in life. Then you see somebody like (former Dallas Cowboys quarterback) Troy Aikman, who has had 10-12 concussions and is still on TV talking as an analyst … (former Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback)Terry Bradshaw has actually acknowledged that he engages in memory training exercises and concentration exercises. It does impact people differently. Are there other variables in there? Is it genetics? Is it environment? Is it personality? I don’t know, but it does seem to impact everybody in a different way, including having any evidence of it. 

Dr. Jonathan Anderson of the EWU
psychology department.

DL: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

JA: The brain bank that occurs over on the east coast at Boston University is often requesting brains of football players. I believe of all the football players that have donated their brains, they found CTE in all of them except for one … There was a high school football player who passed away and the family donated that high school player’s brain. They found evidence of CTE in there. Here’s a 16-18 year old kid who’s already showing signs of it. When (former NFL linebacker) Junior Seau committed suicide, he purposefully shot himself through the chest instead of the brain so his brain could be studied … The difference is between cause-and-effect and correlational. Right now, we have correlational evidence that shows that there’s a relationship. It doesn’t mean one causes the other; it just means when one is here, you see a high probability of the other appearing. It doesn’t mean that if you do this, it causes this. However, the evidence seems compelling, although there are multiple medical professionals who say the evidence is weak.