Bonus: Football, genetics and CTE

Late last year, Jason Cole, editor-in-chief of Fansided reached out to me and asked if I’d be interesting in writing a story about how certain people might be more susceptible to getting CTE based on their genetics.

It’s a pretty interesting topic, and every once in a while you’ll see a headline pop up saying something about some research group linking a particular gene to CTE. But aside from these one-off stories, there hasn’t been a whole lot written on the topic as a whole in the mainstream media.

So of course I jumped at the opportunity.

The story is live on Fansided.com right now, so I’d encourage you to please head on over there and read it.

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There were two main parts of this story I wanted to address. First, I wanted to get into the science of it and find out what we really know — are there any genes that are confirmed to be linked to CTE?

Secondly, I wanted to put a human face on this. What do athletes think of all this? Are they aware of the issue and are they actively doing anything about it?

The science was fascinating. I spoke to Dr. Jesse Mez of Boston University and exchanged emails with Dr. Carmen Tartaglia of the University of Toronto. They both said basically the same thing:

“So far, there is no evidence that there are genetic mutations that cause CTE.”

This is not to say that researchers don’t believe some people are genetically predisposed to getting CTE. They just say they don’t know what genes (and I stress the plural here) are involved. We have some 20,000 genes and researchers made it clear to me that you can’t just point at one or two and say “OH WATCH OUT, YOU HAVE THAT ONE! YOU’RE GONNA GET CTE!” It’s hardly that simple and there probably is a complex combination of genes that are the culprit. And scientists have yet to find the tiny needle in the enormous haystack.

bonus cte and genetics.png

For a player’s perspective, I spoke with Zander Diamont, who was interesting to me because:

  1. He was a college quarterback who walked away after his junior season because he wanted to save his brain.

  2. He has a brother — Luca — who is a high-level prospect.

  3. He has strong feelings about genetic testing.

“If you have a gene that makes you more susceptible to CTE you should not play football period. Do you want your brain or not? … Do you want to have children and have a full life? It’s just that simple.”

Zander told me that he and his brother were both tested for a “concussion gene,” and that they came back clean. The problem is, he was a little fuzzy on what he was tested for, and as noted above, the science is far from certain on this stuff.

The takeaway for me is that the message out there in the public is muddled and it’s easy to see how an athlete looking for peace of mind might get a little confused. When you see headlines that say “scientists find genetic link to CTE,” approach with caution, and read the whole story, because the information within is probably much more nuanced than the headline.

So please go read the story at Fansided — there is a lot more information there that I don’t get into here, nor in the bonus podcast episode embedded above.

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MORE READING:

— “Why do some people get CTE? It may be in their genes” (CNNRead

— “IU’s Zander Diamont to quit football after bowl: ‘I need my brain’” (IndyStarRead

— “BU researchers make first link from severe CTE to genes” (Boston Globe) Read

— Study: NFL players live longer overall, but are three times more likely to die of neurodegenerative causes (NIH.govRead