Skip to main content
A Doctor’s Take on the Condition in the Will Smith Movie “Concussion”

You are listening to The Scope Radio:

A Doctor’s Take on the Condition in the Will Smith Movie “Concussion”

Dec 21, 2015

The upcoming Will Smith movie “Concussion” focuses on a condition called chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE.) We asked Dr. Colby Hansen from the University of Utah Orthopedic Center Concussion Clinic what doctors know and don’t yet know about it. And be sure to check out our podcasts on concussions: "Should I Let My Kids Play Contact Sports?", "Concussions: What We Know and What We Don’t", "What Does a Concussion Clinic?" Do, and "Concussion Recovery: A Six-Step Process."

Episode Transcript

Announcer: Medical News and Research from University Utah Physicians and Specialists you can use, for a happier and healthier life. You're listening to The Scope.

Interviewer: The Will Smith movie "Concussion" focuses on a condition called Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy. Dr. Colby Hansen is from the University of Utah Orthopedic Center Concussion Clinic. Dr. Hansen, tell me about this condition.

Dr. Hansen: Well, I think in general there's still so much for us as a scientific community and as a medical community to understand about this entity that is highlighted in the movie, chronic traumatic encephalopathy. I mean, it seems pretty clear that trauma is a common denominator, but we don't know to what degree genetics may play into this, to what degree other types of issues may play into it, either mental health disorders or whatnot. We don't know at what amount of exposure to trauma people are put at risk. Just frankly, there's a lot to tease out before we start being over-reactionary and pulling the plug on sports and things of that nature.

Interviewer: The condition that they're talking about in the movie, what exactly is that?

Dr. Hansen: Chronic traumatic encephalopathy is really a diagnosis that can only be made postmortem or after death by autopsy. What some of these researchers are seeing are abnormal collections of clumps of protein called tau that has also been linked to other degenerative diseases like Alzheimer's dementia. They've seen these under the microscope of some of these former athletes, and there's really no denying that they've seen this. So now they're in a phase of trying to characterize are there maybe certain areas of the brain where you get this kind of collection more than others, to what degree does this correlate with known behaviors or symptoms that the patient was experiencing while they were alive, and then ultimately trying to make the link back to the sport or the activity that they were engaged in. People would generally feel or believe that not every football player who progressed through to the NFL has this disorder, so who does and who doesn't and what are the differentiating factors between who does and who doesn't.

Interviewer: Do people that don't play football develop this disease?

Dr. Hansen: At least in terms of the case series, the group at Boston led by Dr. Ann McKee, who's a neuro pathologist there, has studied the most brains and they are not exclusively football players. This disorder was originally described many, many years ago, many decades ago, in boxers, and was termed Dementia Pugilistica which literally means "boxer's dementia." We would assume that the common denominator is trauma, but we don't know much beyond that. How much trauma, at what age the trauma occurred, there's even a lot of debate now not in just concussions, but just the repeated impacts that don't necessarily produce a clear, observable concussion.

At the end of the day there is so much for us to learn, to understand, about not only the impacts of a single concussion and how is the best way to manage it, how is the best way to assess it, but of course the long-term ramifications of concussions and repeated concussions in the health of our athletes and anybody who's active.

Announcer: is University of Utah Health Sciences Radio. If you like what you heard, be sure to get our latest content by following us on Facebook. Just click on the Facebook icon at