Language May Be Early Clue About Athletes' Problems

Researchers put NFL players through linguistic tests
By Michael Harthorne,  Newser Staff
Posted May 30, 2017 2:13 PM CDT
Language May Be Early Clue About Athletes' Problems
From left, a normal brain scan, a suspected Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) subject, and a subject with Alzheimer's disease.   (AP Photo/PNAS/David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA)

With head injuries a growing concern within football and other contact sports, researchers believe they may have found a way to test for CTE before a patient is dead, the New York Times reports. Researchers put 10,000 interviews given by NFL players, coaches, and executives over eight years through two linguistic tests and published their findings this week in Brain and Language. Seven out of 10 players observed saw their vocabulary and word usage decline over those eight years. Meanwhile only five of 18 coaches and executives—who never played professional football—trended downward in both tests.

Researchers believe the steeper decline among players is likely due to the early effects of CTE. Changes in conversational language can appear years before other symptoms of brain damage. Most healthy individuals see their vocabularies and use of words remain constant or even improve through their mid-70s. Researchers admit the small sample size means further studies are necessary. But if their hypothesis is correct, a cheap linguistic test could be used to confirm brain damage in professional athletes, military personnel, victims of domestic violence, and more. Currently, there is no way to confirm the presence of CTE besides an autopsy. (This dead man had CTE, but not the history you'd expect.)

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