Medical researchers have come a long way in researching CTE and athletes over the years, but the condition has always been discovered post-mortem. There is still no fail-proof way to detect CTE as it happens. Not yet, at least. A new study by researchers at Arizona State may be on to something and it has nothing to do with scanning the head.
Researchers at Arizona State found the speech patterns of 10 NFL players over a period of eight years declined in overall vocabulary. The patterns of their speech in press conferences and other interviews were compared to the vocabulary used by coaches and front office executives who have never played in the league and researchers noticed “a steeper decline in vocabulary size and other verbal skills” from the players studied.
It is important to note the sample size was admittedly small and no definitive conclusions can be drawn from the research at this time. It could, however, open the door to more similar testing that spans a wider range of players, even across sports, to see if there is anything that can be picked up just by listening to how players speak. The idea is that as a player’s brain is banged around, the early signs of trauma could be reflected in a declining vocabulary. According to the New York Times:
Of the 10 players, seven showed a decline in one of the measures; four showed a decline in both. Of the 18 coaches and executives, eight showed a decline in one measure and five a decline in both. The players were significantly more likely to show signs of verbal deterioration, the researchers concluded.
The study at Arizona State has been led by Dr. Visar Berisha, who previously studied the speech patterns of former President Ronald Reagan before Reagan had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. We are a long way from saying doctors will be able to listen to a player speak and automatically be able to say without question that player has suffered a CTE injury, but expanding the scope of what to look for is never a bad idea when it comes to researching long-term brain injuries.
The scope of this particular NFL study has evaluated 10,000 pregame and postgame interviews and press conferences from 2007 through 2015. The source of the interviews came in the form of transcripts from 11 NFL team websites. A total of 28 players were evaluated in the study, although it is unknown which 28 players were studied. In all, seven quarterbacks, one nose tackle, one cornerback and one wide receiver were found to have suffered from diminishing speech patterns.
Dr. Berisha intends to use similar study techniques to examine student-athletes at Arizona State’s football, hockey and soccer programs.