HEALTH / WELL-BEING

Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy in the Brains of Military Personnel

Article

Persistent psychiatric problems may develop in military personnel who are exposed to combat; such problems have been attributed in some cases to chronic traumatic brain injury. Only limited data regarding damage in the brains of military service members are available. The authors describe the examination for the presence of damage in 225 consecutive brains from a brain bank dedicated to the study of deceased service members. In addition, they reviewed information obtained retrospectively regarding the deceased’s’ histories of blast exposure, contact sports, other types of traumatic brain injury. Evidence of damage was infrequently found in a series of brains from military personnel and was usually reflected by minimal changes. Risk for damage was higher among the deceased who had contact-sports exposure and other exposures to brain injury in civilian life than among those who had blast exposure or other military brain injury. The Authors do however accept that the small number of cases preclude causal conclusions.

Abstract

Background: Persistent neuropsychiatric sequelae may develop in military personnel who are exposed to combat; such sequelae have been attributed in some cases to chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). Only limited data regarding CTE in the brains of military service members are available. Methods: We performed neuropathological examinations for the presence of CTE in 225 consecutive brains from a brain bank dedicated to the study of deceased service members. In addition, we reviewed information obtained retrospectively regarding the decedents' histories of blast exposure, contact sports, other types of traumatic brain injury (TBI), and neuropsychiatric disorders. Results: Neuropathological findings of CTE were present in 10 of the 225 brains (4.4%) we examined; half the CTE cases had only a single pathognomonic lesion. Of the 45 brains from decedents who had a history of blast exposure, 3 had CTE, as compared with 7 of 180 brains from those without a history of blast exposure (relative risk, 1.71; 95% confidence interval [CI], 0.46 to 6.37); 3 of 21 brains from decedents with TBI from an injury during military service caused by the head striking a physical object without associated blast exposure (military impact TBI) had CTE, as compared with 7 of 204 without this exposure (relative risk, 4.16; 95% CI, 1.16 to 14.91). All brains with CTE were from decedents who had participated in contact sports; 10 of 60 contact-sports participants had CTE, as compared with 0 of 165 who had not participated in contact sports (point estimate of relative risk not computable; 95% CI, 6.16 to infinity). CTE was present in 8 of 44 brains from decedents with non-sports-related TBI in civilian life, as compared with 2 of 181 brains from those without such exposure in civilian life (relative risk, 16.45; 95% CI, 3.62 to 74.79). Conclusions: Evidence of CTE was infrequently found in a series of brains from military personnel and was usually reflected by minimal neuropathologic changes. Risk ratios for CTE were numerically higher among decedents who had contact-sports exposure and other exposures to TBI in civilian life than among those who had blast exposure or other military TBI, but the small number of CTE cases and wide confidence intervals preclude causal conclusions. (Funded by the Department of Defense-Uniformed Services University Brain Tissue Repository and Neuropathology Program and the Henry M. Jackson Foundation for the Advancement of Military Medicine.).

Full Reference

N Engl J Med. 2022 Jun 9;386(23):2169-2177.