Did Lou Gehrig Have Lou Gehrig's Disease?

By Joseph Calamia | August 17, 2010 4:16 pm

467px-GehrigCUThat may seem a strange question, akin to asking who’s buried in Grant’s tomb. But a new study proposes that some athletes diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease may in fact have a different fatal disease that is set off by concussions.

Researchers have previously investigated the link between athletes and this neurodegenerative disease, more technically known as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). A recent study examined what seemed to be a higher than usual incidence of Lou Gehrig’s disease among soccer players, and, of course, the disease bears the name of a New York Yankee who was famously undaunted by the hard knocks of his sport. Though it’s impossible to determine now whether Lou Gehrig suffered from ALS or a different condition (Gehrig was cremated), the study’s lead author speculates that Lou Gehrig’s disease might be a misnomer:

“Here he is, the face of his disease, and he may have had a different disease as a result of his athletic experience,” said Dr. Ann McKee, the director of the neuropathology laboratory for the New England Veterans Administration Medical Centers, and the lead neuropathologist on the study. [The New York Times]

McKee’s team looked at the brains and spinal cords of deceased athletes such as former Minnesota Vikings linebacker Wally Hilgenberg and former Southern California linebacker Eric Scoggins who were thought to have died from ALS, and who had also been diagnosed with a dementia-causing disease linked to head injuries, chronic traumatic encephalopathy. The researchers found two proteins in the spinal cord which are known to harm motor neurons, and would therefore cause ALS-like symptoms. A similar pattern of proteins was found in the spinal cord of a deceased unnamed boxer.

Dr. McKee said that because she has never seen that protein pattern in A.L.S. victims without significant histories of brain trauma, she and her team were confident the three athletes did not have A.L.S., but a disorder that erodes its victims’ nervous system in similar ways. [The New York Times]

The paper detailing this research will appear tomorrow in the Journal of Neuropathology and Experimental Neurology, and a report on the subject will air on the HBO show Real Sports tonight.

“Most A.L.S. patients don’t go to autopsy–there’s no need to look at your brain and spinal cord,” said Dr. Brian Crum, an assistant professor of neurology at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. “But a disease can look like A.L.S., it can look like Alzheimer’s, and it’s not when you look at the actual tissue. This is something that needs to be paid attention to.” [The New York Times]

Such distinctions are not only important for medical research. If concussions are causing disease in military veterans and athletes, they might seek compensation for treatment expenses.

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Image: University Archives—Columbiana Library, Columbia University.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Mind & Brain
  • Brian Too

    /Begin Morbid humor

    Yes, by definition Lou Gehrig had Lou Gehrig’s disease. Because it was his.


    /End Morbid humor

  • http://Untitledvanityproject.blogspot.com Rhacodactylus

    hmm, scientists have discovered it’s bad to be repeatedly bashed about the head . . . you don’t say?

  • Sean Meaney

    So LouGherig’s Disease is a consequence of Physical Damage in sport and not genetic? Or are they claiming that Lou Gherig’s Disease is Genetic and he didnt suffer from it…so is it infact an early version of HIV or some other STD affecting the brain?

  • Nemesis

    @ Sean Meaney

    :0 HIV or STD? What led you to that conclusion? The story discusses repeated head trauma. How is that related to HIV?

  • http://www.funwithln2.com Jon F

    @ Sean Meaney

    Over 90% of cases of ALS are sporadic, meaning they do not have a [single] genetic cause. The vast majority of familial ALS cases have been linked to a gene by now, with the plurality belonging to mutations on the gene SOD-1, though aberrant SOD-1 activity doesn’t appear to be the cause in sporadic ALS, the majority of cases. So, no, by and large, ALS is not genetic. If it were we’d know what causes it other than in very non-specific terms and we’d better be able to treat it. There are any number of theories as to what causes ALS. What the OP was getting at, I believe, was that Lou Gehrig didn’t have ALS but rather a similar disease releated to physical trauma of the CNS that falls into the same family of diseases as ALS called Motor Neurone Diseases. As he said, clinical distinction of these diseases is often quite difficult and post-mortem pathology analysis of tissue is really needed to confirm, which, in the case of Gehrig himself, is not possible.

  • Cbass

    Who is this Jon F and why does he know so much!

  • Albert Bakker


    As pertaining to the difficulties with finding the right diagnosis, even postmortem, in patients (formerly, professionally) playing high contact sports with ALS like symptoms (and other brain-related ailments) perhaps this particular episode from Neuroscene might prove to be illuminating:


    And one dealing with ALS research:

  • Tammy

    I agree Lou Gehrig had it so it was his disease. One would think that the legend could just stay a legend. I am glad they they have found out how to differentiate CTE from ALS. Being a nurse and having a few ALS patients, I know that they are very special people and they address and affiliate their disease with the great Iron Horse Lou Gehrig. His 2130 game streak was unbeaten for 60 years. Sometimes science should leave well enough alone and by all means let legends be legends!!!


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