The acclaimed GQ magazine published an expose in 2009 called “Game Brain” that was the first significant mention of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in popular culture. Years later, an ensuing Hollywood movie on the topic and the discovery of CTE have sent shockwaves throughout the sports world that are still reverberating.
Although CTE is commonly associated with sports injuries, it can affect people from different walks of life, including military veterans. Unfortunately CTE is a diagnosis made only at autopsy by studying sections of the brain.
Tackling this link between the service of military veterans and CTE is Project Enlist Canada, a project of the Concussion Legacy Foundation Canada. And they need your brain to better understand CTE and how to improve the lives of those living with this disease.
What is CTE?
CTE is a progressive and fatal brain disease resulting from repeated sub-concussive impacts. What makes CTE especially tricky is that it can be difficult to treat and is often misdiagnosed with other mental health disorders. Additionally, currently only way to conclusively diagnose CTE is after conducting an autopsy of the brain. All of these factors combined not only make it difficult to diagnose but then also difficult to treat.
However, all hope is not lost. And this is where Project Enlist Canada comes in. The group is currently partnered with Dr. Neil Vastev, a leading world physician working to diagnose CTE in the living brain. Although it is currently not possible, the hope is that a PET scan could be used to diagnose CTE in the future in living brains by essentially injecting radioactive markers to identify proteins that cause CTE.
“If we can diagnose the living brain, then we can start to triage and treat it. So we don’t have to wait until the end of people’s careers and they start to suffer these terrible consequences. And then, of course, mitigation and changing training protocols to really make sure this very insidious condition is called,” said Michael Terry, outreach coordinator of Project Enlist Canada.
Treating CTE in the living is becoming much more critical as the disease is seen now in people of all ages.
According to the Mayo Clinic, “Experts currently believe that CTE symptoms appear in two forms. In early life between the late 20s and early 30s, the first form of CTE may cause mental health and behavioral issues including depression, anxiety, impulsivity and aggression. The second form of CTE is thought to cause symptoms later in life, around age 60. These signs and symptoms include memory and thinking problems that are likely to progress to dementia.”
Link with the military community
Even if a military member doesn’t recall significant concussions in their career, they could be more susceptible than they realize. Since CTE is caused by repeated hits to the brain, this could affect snipers and other soldiers who use shoulder-heavy weapons.
“Over time, they can actually be strongly suspected to cause CTE,” added Terry, who is also a 23-year veteran of the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF).
“We want veterans to pledge their brains because we need to establish a baseline of what the physical toll of military service looks like on the human brain. That will help us identify problem areas with training protocols, equipment, and treatment,”noted Terry
Since the disease is increasingly seen in veterans of military combat, Project Enlist Canada is campaigning for veterans to pledge to donate their brains. The hope is by studying the brains of veterans who have seen combat, researchers can better understand how to diagnose and treat CTE.
However, you don’t have to be just a veteran of combat to donate. Regardless of a concussion diagnosis or trade, any veteran is encouraged to pledge.
“We want veterans to pledge their brains because we need to establish a baseline of what the physical toll of military service looks like on the human brain. That will help us identify problem areas with training protocols, equipment, and treatment,” noted Terry.
A particular emphasis is also on female veterans since CTE has not been diagnosed in any female veteran or athelte, and that data is needed.
In fact, anyone can pledge to donate their brain. Although the brain of those who have not served will not be used for research purposes, it does help drive overall awareness of the campaign and the importance of studying CTE.
“Brain research is labour intensive. It is resource-intensive, and it is expensive. So, we need those pledges to drive that awareness and show the need for this research,” said Terry.
In the few short years since it was founded, Project Enlist Canada has grown to 140 pledges by the military community to donate their brain. Project Enlist Canada has also started a number of other initiatives to create awareness about CTE and brain health generally. These initiatives include a public awareness campaign and Operation Brain health, which shares brain health tips, tricks, and tactics.
“The main purpose is to really start understanding traumatic brain injury and how to mitigate it in people who become injured and how to treat it,” said Terry.
“We, at Project Enlist Canada, want to lead the world in this. We care about our soldiers, we care about our athletes, and we care about our kids who are playing these sports. Sports are such an important part of Canadian culture and life, and we want to make sure we are carrying on those traditions but also protecting people from CTE and traumatic brain injury,” said Terry.
About the Concussion Legacy Foundation
Concussion Legacy Foundation Canada was founded in December of 2012 by four-time Grey Cup champion, Tim Fleiszer, to help solve the concussion crisis in Canada. Since that time, CLF Canada has operated prevention, education and awareness events across the country, reaching more than 27,000 Canadians in-person and millions of Canadians digitally. CLF Canada received its charitable status in 2014.
In June 2021, the Concussion Legacy Foundation Canada officially launched Project Enlist Canada, a program specifically designed to understand CTE in military veterans.
“The reason it was founded was to accelerate critical research on CTE and the link with PTSD in military veterans,” said Michael Terry,
The ultimate goal is to assist future Canadian soldiers and prevent the long-term effects of brain injuries.
“The main purpose is to really start understanding traumatic brain injury and how to mitigate it in people who become injured and how to treat it,” said Terry,