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CTE, media presence, and NFL player deaths trends of public interest of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) from 2004-2022

Eggleston, Blakelee A.
Ball, Caitlin M.
Sweat, Carly A.
Nolan, Douglas
Hartwell, Micah L.

Background: In the 2021 football season alone, 187 National Football League players were reported having a concussion. Multiple sports concussions can often result in chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a brain condition resulting from repetitive forceful blows to the head, such as repetitive concussions. Over the past two decades there has been an increase in public interest in CTE as several former National Football League (NFL) players have been diagnosed with this degenerative brain condition post mortem. Aim: In this study, we are investigating the effects media (eg. movies and news publications) and player incidents had on public interest in CTE. Methods: To assess trendsin public interest, we extracted monthly relative search interest (RSI) in CTE from Google Trends between 01/2002 through 11/2022. To assess the increase in RSI following the a major event (Table 1), we first constructed an autoregressive integrated moving average to predict RSI from 03/2012—as if the events had not occurred—through the end of the period and calculated the differences between actual and forecasted values. Results: We found that the RSI increased over time—specifically following the release of the movie ‘Concussion.’ The peak in RSI (100) over this timespan was following the release of Aaron Hernandez’s autopsy results in 2017, which was 87.81 (95%CI: 8.72-15.66) higher than forecasted, showing a 720.26% increase in RSI. Other significant peaks occurred after the release of ‘The Killer Inside: The Mind of Aaron Hernandez’ in 2020, with a RSI of 92, compared to the forecasted value of 13.35 and the death of Demaryius Thomas due to seizure complications, with a RSI of 68 and forecasted value of 14.34. Conclusion: The increasing trend in public interest in CTE is likely due to the increased media exposure following traumatic NFL injuries and highlighted by the movie ‘Concussion’ and the release of Aaron Hernandez’s autopsy. Increased public interest in CTE from this media coverage likely spurred more research and clinical interest in traumatic brain injuries, as well asfunding for these types of studies. We recommend healthcare professionals stay up to date with ongoing research related to TBI and CTE as more research becomes available—especially among younger athletes who are likely not provided the same level of professional equipment for combative sports.