Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy for Kindergarteners

Posted on January 30, 2014

I often hear about CTE and I feel very passionately about it. But I don’t actually understand what it is. Not one bit. Not at all. So I’m going to try something new today, and I’m going to Google it and then explain it so that my kindergarten self could understand. If there is something your kindergarten self would like to understand, give me a topic. I’m taking requests. 


This is a Neuron. Well, it’s a cookie cutter of a Neuron, but it’s a Neuron nonetheless. On the left you’ll see a big round thing with some Dr. Seuss-looking leafy appendages coming off of it. Those appendages are called dendrites. We won’t be focusing on those. The dendrites come off of the circular cell body. We won’t be focusing on that either. Nor will we be discussing the Nucleus, which is that little circle on the inside. We’re going all the way along the skinny snakelike part of this cell that contains axons, schwann cells, and the myelin sheath to the right hand side of the cell. Here you will reach the distal (far) axons. They’re the noodles that lead to the terminal buttons. Inside those noodles is where you will find something called tau proteins. Tau proteins seem to only exist in neurons in the brain. 


Tau proteins are really complicated and still totally over my head. But here’s the best explanation I have. Inside the axons are lots of threadlike fibers called microtubules. Microtubules can be thought of as conveyer belts inside a cell. They move lots of important stuff to lots of important places. 


So this tau protein makes sure these microtubules are stable. It does other things too. But I can only Google so much. 

There are two types of brain injuries. Mild brain injuries. And severe brain injuries. A severe brain injury means you’re in the hospital, you’re probably hooked up to tubes, you’re really not doing so well. A mild brain injury on the other hand is a concussion. It’s actually not mild at all. It’s just mild in comparison to paralysis and assisted breathing. (Is suicide more mild than paralysis?)

In the moment a mild brain injury occurs, there is a quick snap of the axons. This could be the result of one’s head hitting the ground or it could be caused by a mid-air collision. Incidents that cause concussions are truly infinite in scope.

Axons by nature bend. But what they don’t handle well are those quick abrupt snaps. They are immediately damaged, the microtubules rupturing inside of them. So when there are multiple concussive hits, there are multiple ruptures. So we have the immediate rupture (that’s irreparable) and then we have the less instantaneous process that happens in the days, months, years, and decades after these ruptures. And this is the tau protein mutiny. 

Here’s the interesting thing… when we’re babies, we only have one isoform of the tau protein. An isoform is just the genetic form a protein takes on. As we get older, scientists have found that we have as many as six isoforms of tau protein. Think of Lord Voldemort and how he had seven Horcruxes. The more isoforms there are of a protein, the less likely it is able to maintain stability. This means that tau protein can easily go awry. 

When the tau protein goes awry (like it does in CTE), it dissociates from the microtubules. This makes the microtubules lose their stability.


On top of that, the tau protein peaces out and goes on a rampage. First, the tau creates visible plaques (called grey matter). And then the tau acts like an insane prion (which is an infectious agent created by protein) and says to other taus “bitch, if I can’t have these microtubules, then you can’t either”. And it actually stops new taus from binding to the microtubules. And the other taus can’t even reason with the insane tau, because it’s already too late. And then it just turns into a scene from the Walking Dead. Tau proteins just keep turning. One after the other after the other! And nobody can do damn thing about it. Not even the NFL. 


Talk about some fucked up shit! 

So now there’s no tau. And the microtubules aren’t stable. So no neuron growth happens. And transport of information goes from 60 to zero in 2.3 seconds. 

And the next thing you know… you have this: 



Check out this update.

(Please let me know any misinformation I may have shared! I tried real hard and want an A+)

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