The last NFL season was dominated by worries about concussions and other head injuries more than any before, but it ended on an upbeat note when Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers shook off two regular season concussions to win Super Bowl MVP honors. But after the bright lights go down, the long-term effects of brain injuries linger in the dark. And no one, it seems, knew that better than Dave Duerson.
Duerson played 11 seasons as a battering ram, a safety for the Chicago Bears and New York Giants. Last week he committed suicide, thrusting the worries about the long-term consequences of repeated blows to the head back into the spotlight.
When the 50-year-old former NFL safety and successful entrepreneur shot himself in the chest, there was another purpose: so that his brain could be donated to Boston University researchers and studied to assess the life-long neurological effects of playing in the National Football League. [Wired]
According to reports, Duerson made sure to get his final message across. He texted family members on the day of his death that he wanted his brain to go to the center, and to be sure he was heard, he left behind a paper note reading “Please, see that my brain is given to the NFL’s brain bank.”
“I think it’s just an example of the type of person he is,” Alicia Duerson said. “In his time, he put the future in front of him — future generations of football players in front of him. I’m just so proud of him at this moment.” His family said that Duerson, the 50-year-old former Bears safety who graduated from Notre Dame, had been finding it hard to remember names and to put words together. They described a devoted father of four who had spent countless hours with the football players union, where he became familiar with the plight of retired players dealing with physical decline and dementia. [The New York Times]
At the Boston University center Duerson’s brain will be examined for signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative condition caused by repeated blows to the head for which NFL players are at elevated risk. The center’s co-director Christopher Nowinski says that 13 of the 14 brains of NFL players he’s studied show signs of CTE. In Duerson’s brain, as with the others, the scientists will be on the lookout for what’s called the tau protein.
“The presence of abnormal tau protein is a sign of CTE — it’s toxic to the brain,” Nowinski said…. Abnormal tau is found in both CTE and in Alzheimer’s disease, Nowinski said, but the pattern of deposits differs between the two conditions. In CTE, tau is primarily found in the surface regions of the cortex. If the wrinkly surface of the brain were a mountain range, Nowinski said, the brain of a person with CTE would have the highest levels of tau in the valleys. [MyHealthNewsDaily]
As part of its new willingness to at least talk about head injuries, the NFL recently donated $1 million to the Boston University center. The league changed its rules before this past season to make it more difficult for concussed players to reenter a game, and also made new and safer helmets available. The players are more aware of the research, too: Many former players have decided to donate their brains to the Boston center upon their deaths.
At the moment, NFL players and owners are engaged in negotiations to avoid a lockout that would nix all or part of the 2011 season. One of the issues on the table is more benefits for retired players suffering lingering health effects from their time in the league. However, the owners have also been pushing for the regular season to expand from 16 to 18 games, extending the wear and tear that the violent NFL game takes on the body.
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