Ex-NFL Player Commits Suicide, Donates Brain to Head Injury Research

By Andrew Moseman | February 23, 2011 12:32 pm

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.

Related Content:
DISCOVER: Lights Out: Can Contact Sports Lower Your Intelligence?
80beats: Finally: N.F.L. Issues New Concussion Rules To Protect Players’ Brains
80beats: Is Playing College Football Enough to Damage a Brain for Life?
80beats: Emerging Pattern Shows Football Can Cause Devastating Brain Damage
80beats: College Football Player Who Committed Suicide Had Signs of Brain Injury

Image: iStockphoto

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Mind & Brain, Top Posts
  • Katharine

    Why does the tau protein form in response to trauma?

  • http://discovermagazine.com Andrew Moseman

    @Katharine,
    It’s not that tau proteins originally form in response to trauma. Taus are present in the normal healthy brain, but they can contribute to neurodegenerative disease when they become damaged or tangled and thus “abnormal” and toxic. Here’s a description of how they play a role in Alzheimer’s: http://www.myhealthnewsdaily.com/alzheimers-disease-tangles-tau-protein-100922-0418/

  • Jojo

    Suicide should be legal if someone doesn’t want to live anymore. We have no choice in being born. We should at least have the choice to die when we choose without interference.

  • http://clubneko.net/ nick

    This is the most awesomely tragic story I’ve heard this year. Kudos to Duerson for the donation, but so sad that he felt he couldn’t live anymore even after all his successes in life.

    Everyone who’s survived jumping off the Golden Gate bridge says that they realized all their problems were trivial and solvable on the way down. On the other hand, when your life is unmitigated suffering, you should be allowed a respectful way out.

  • BEPinter

    I too agree with legal suicide. I feel that the medical community, specifically the mental health community has failed me. I have been in and out of counseling most of my life about 25yrs of counseling. I’ve tried numerous medicines, talking, exposure therapy, psychoanalysis, etc. I’m not crazy in the sense of knowing right from wrong, but I’ve often told my Drs. that I feel there is a biological cause and requested to have my brain scanned. unfortunately, my ins. would not cover it. Basically, my problems stem from an abusive father who used humiliation,beating,punching,spitting on me, as well as other tactics. I’ve been labeled with adjustment disorder,addiction(am clean now),ADD,Personality disorder,PTSD,Social Phobia,Generalized anxiety, Depression, thought disorder, and so on. So I really have no clue what the problem is. I live in fear everyday and this is not living. Not that I would use the service, but if someone wants to terminate their life and have been counseled first- Then why not? It’s their life. Now I’m not talking about 16yr old children.

  • Living Hell

    I agree that suicide and even assisted suicide should be legalized and all available bodies should be used. Problem is only to get somebody to do actuallt do research on the dead body. But if the medical world was not interested in life to solve the problems related to headaches, why should they be willing to do it on a dead body to help others. We are not all famous to get research going. But refusal to use a dead body, will most defenitely not prevent a suicide – not mine in any case. The lack of research in life in in fact, will make sure of that. Constant delibetating headaches is really making it impossible to live. So why not try and solve the problem through research. Problem in South Africa is that reseach seems to be for the birds. They are only interested in transplants if you are under the age of 70. Unfortunately I am bloodtype O negative worsening this transplant mentality as opposed to research on headaches. MRI showed abnormal position of brainstem, arachnoid cyst, hypo-intensities on frontal and right lobes and calcification in choroid plexus. Yet nothing but painkiller medication ever saw the light and nothing has been done to find and treat the root of the problem. Instead, the GP turns to a psychiatrist, who does not even know peripheral neuropathy. If I cannot get help in life, can I perhaps force down a court order or something to force somebody to do something about severe and chronic headaches for future generations?

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