WebMD News Brief

Most Former NFL Players in Boston University Study Had CTE

football helmet on football field

Feb. 8, 2023 – The brains of nearly all NFL players examined in a study showed signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a brain injury linked to repeated blows to the head, researchers at Boston University announced.

In the study, 345 out of 376 former NFL players, or almost 92%, were diagnosed with CTE, which can only be definitively identified after death. The results were purposely announced leading up to this Sunday's Super Bowl.

“There is a love for football by the public and individuals that transcends common sense,” Ann McKee, MD, director of the university's CTE Center, told The Brink. “They are stuck in a denial because the game is so important to them that they refuse to look at the facts.”

CTE  causes changes in the brain that are different from aging, Alzheimer's disease, or other brain diseases. Symptoms of CTE are memory loss, confusion, impaired judgment, impulse control problems, aggression, depression, and thoughts of suicide. Other symptoms resemble parkinsonism, involving slowed movements, rigidity or stiffness, and tremors. CTE eventually results in progressive dementia. McKee said they are publicizing CTE data now in an effort to reach people who may be experiencing symptoms and encourage them to seek help. 

The study authors cautioned that "NFL player data should not be interpreted to suggest that 91.7% of all current and former NFL players have CTE, as brain bank samples are subject to selection biases."

Still, “there is a lot of benefit to having a label for your symptoms,” said McKee, who is also the head of neuropathology at VA Boston Healthcare System. “Even if the person doesn't have a cure, just knowing it's not your fault, but that you have a disease, matters to people.”

Though symptomatic head injuries like concussions contribute to CTE risk, lesser impacts known as “subconcussive hits” that are routine in many activities and do not cause symptoms at the time have also been linked to CTE. The disease has been diagnosed in athletes who stopped playing sports after high school or college. Military members are also at increased risk.The Concussion Legacy Foundation Help Line can connect patients and families with medical referrals, one-on-one peer support, and online support groups. 

McKee asked former athletes, including women, to enroll in current studies that are examining how to diagnose and treat CTE. She thanked those who are already participating and the families who arranged brain donations for research.

“I miss my hero dearly,” said Jill Arrington, the daughter of former NFL player Rick Arrington, in a statement. “It pains me to know his life was cut short by the sport he loved most. As a brain donor, part of his legacy is in this research, and I want all former football players to know how important it is to contribute and sign up for studies so Boston University CTE Center researchers and their collaborators around the world can learn how to treat, and one day cure, the disease that devastated our family.”

Show Sources


Boston University Chobanian & Avedisian School of Medicine: “Researchers Find CTE in 345 of 376 Former NFL Players Studied.”

The Brink: “BU Finds CTE in Nearly 92 Percent of Ex-NFL Players Studied.”

BU Research CTE Center: “What is CTE?”

Cleveland Clinic: “Parkinsonism.”

Concussion Legacy Foundation: “CLF HelpLine.”

© 2023 WebMD, LLC. All rights reserved. View privacy policy and trust info