Talk about the NFL’s negligence of head trauma and CTE in its athletes has been around for a while, and when Concussion, the major motion picture film starring Will Smith, aired in 2015, it made a pretty damning case that has truly impacted the way people think about American football and high contact sports.

That talk is just another reminder that this country is fraught with paradox.  While the United States is a cultural and capital mecca, it also frequently pays homage to barbaric traditions of old.  It is a place where information is available at every corner, yet ignorance chooses either to turn from those facts or distort them into self-serving perversions

So it’s not particularly out of character that America’s most beloved sport would be lauded for its demonstration of brute strength and mental toughness and condemned for its association with crippling injury and neurodegenerative diseases such as chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE.

What is CTE? 

Once regarded as a primarily boxing-related disease and named dementia puglistica, CTE is an ongoing, neurodegenerative disease triggered by repeated head injuries.  Typically, those who suffer from CTE have sustained trauma to the head over a period of many years.  Think boxing, hockey, and football players.

Signs of CTE are visible through brain imaging, but an official diagnosis cannot be determined until an autopsy showing the abnormal atrophy, inflammation, and build up of tau protein in the brain typical of the disease are identified.  Once CTE begins, it creates a self-feeding cycle of brain damage that does not stop:

The brain will become inflamed, which causes more damage, which causes more inflammation.

The symptoms of CTE can be devastating and include increased aggression, depression, suicidal ideation, memory loss, impulse control, impaired judgment, difficulty keeping balance, and progressive dementia.  Because its symptoms are so similar to those of other neurodegenerative diseases such as dementia, Parkinson’s, and Alzheimer’s, it is often misdiagnosed and sometimes simply attributed to old age.  If left untreated, however, CTE can wreak havoc on the lives of its victims and their families.

In 2007, renowned professional wrestler Chris Benoit murdered his 7-year old son and wife before hanging himself.  At the time of the egregious crime, Benoit’s behavior was blamed on steroid abuse.  However, postmortem testing of Benoit’s brain revealed extensive damage from CTE.

Justin Strzelczyk, the former Pittsburgh Steelers offensive lineman, died at only age 36 in an explosive car accident after leading police officers on a 40-mile high-speed chase, also in 2007.  Like Benoit, postmortem testing demonstrated CTE brain damage.

In 2016, former NFL player Kevin Turner died at age 46 from what was Former NFL player Kevin Turner died of complications from CTEbelieved to have been ALS.  Postmortem testing indicated that Turner was in fact suffering from advanced CTE.

The prevalence of CTE in football players is shocking.  Of the 95 former professional football player brains donated to research, 91 have been diagnosed with CTE.  This is indicative of two major issues: there is a discrepancy between what the NFL says is safe practice and what actually is safe practice, and there are probably a lot of former and current football players and their families suffering from CTE who are desperate for treatment.

Cannabis and CTE Treatment

The scope of cannabis’ therapeutic value is pretty magical. Cannabis is being studied for its potential to treat Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, post-traumatic stress disorder, multiple sclerosis, bipolar disorder, chronic pain, and epilepsy to name a few.

So despite the DEA’s absurd classification of cannabis as a schedule 1 drug, or a substance with no medical use and a high potential for abuse, it is becoming less and less surprising to discover that cannabis has the potential to be an effective treatment for any given disease, and CTE is no exception.

Cannabidiol (CBD), is one of the 80 or so cannabinoids present in marijuana, and it is most known for its medical value.  Among other things, CBD is a powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory, and these properties make it especially attractive as a treatment for neurodegenerative diseases.

It is such an attractive compound of the marijuana plant, that Kannalife Sciences, a pharmaceutical neuroprotection company, is developing a synthetic version of CBD void of other cannabinoids, most notably THC to avoid any psychotropic effects, meant to treat CTE.  Kannalife’s thought is that the government, and subsequently the NFL, will have an easier time accepting that form of cannabis since it can be given as a pill with zero psychoactive or performance enhancing properties.  However, Kannalife has found that CBD isn’t particularly easy to synthesize since it can be toxic at high concentrations and isn’t as efficiently absorbed into the bloodstream when it is taken as a pill.

This isn’t a huge surprise. The reason cannabis is such an awesome natural treatment is because of how the cannabinoids work together to create their therapeutic effects.  A 2015 Israeli study found that the “crude” whole plant preparations of cannabis so frequently criticized by pharmaceutical companies and the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA) are actually superior to single-molecule NFL CTEcompounds (pure CBD).  In fact, the study found that whole plant CBD was most effective at smaller levels that were ineffective in single molecule compounds. It took much more CBD administered from a single molecule compound to achieve the same results achieved from a much smaller whole plant dose.

And while CBD has received the lion’s share of attention when it comes to treating brain injury, one 2014 study shows that THC is associated with decreased mortality in adult patients sustaining traumatic brain injury.  In another study, this one from 2016, mice that received a very low dose of THC were protected from inflammation-induced brain damage without experiencing the cannabinoid’s psychotropic effects.  The results of these studies suggest that THC may also be an effective treatment for neurodegenerative diseases such as CTE.

So wait.  A natural, organic compound is safer and more potent than one created in a laboratory

Shocking. That frustrating paradox rears its confounding head once again. Despite centuries of evidence demonstrating the non-toxic, therapeutic value of medicinal marijuana, people only really start paying attention when a pharmaceutical company starts making noise, too.

I guess noise is being made, though, and that’s enough to give hope to those who need it most.

Dianna Benjamin

About the author: Dianna Benjamin is a freelance writer, teacher, wife, and mom horrified and fascinated by social justice and our inability--yet constant pursuit--to get it right.