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.”
We’re coming off the first weekend of the NFL season, full of the bone-crunching hits and brain-rattling tackles that fans have come to love. But never before have fans been so attuned to the consequences of that violence, with concussions and other brain injuries in particular gathering more attention than ever at the start of this autumn’s season. And it’s not just at the professional level.
Owen Thomas killed himself this spring. He was 21, a defensive lineman and captain for the University of Pennsylvania football team, and he hanged himself in his apartment. Any out-of-nowhere suicide by a seemingly happy person leaves those left behind grappling for an explanation. But when doctors completed their autopsy of Thomas, they found something startling: evidence of incipient chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the condition caused by repetitive brain trauma that’s been showing up in many former NFL players.
That 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]
The N.F.L. has maintained for years that if a player suffers a concussion during a football game, then that player is in no danger from returning to the field as soon as his symptoms are gone. However, after much recent criticism about how the league is handling their players’ safety, the N.F.L. announced on Wednesday that it would impose its most stringent rules to date on managing concussions, requiring players who exhibit any significant sign of concussion to be removed from a game or practice and be barred from returning the same day [The New York Times]. The rule is based on research showing that concussion symptoms can reappear hours, or even days, after the initial injury. However, the key word in the new guidelines is “significant,” and some are questioning whether the N.F.L.’s definition is broad enough.
Under the new rule, symptoms that require immediate removal include amnesia, poor balance and an abnormal neurological examination, whether or not those symptoms quickly subside [The New York Times]. However, concussion symptoms can often be subtle and range from inability to remember their team’s plays to persistent dizziness or headaches. Still, under the new rules, players suffering these symptoms can return to play as long as their ailments are not persistent.
Scientists who have been investigating the link between professional football and severe brain damage have a troubling new piece of evidence: The brain of a deceased man who stopped playing football after college also showed the distinctive signs of damage. The man, the former Western Illinois wide receiver Mike Borich, died at 42 of a drug overdose in February after a downward spiral of depression and substance abuse that is generally associated with the type of tissue damage found in his brain [The New York Times].
The findings suggest that the damage isn’t only associated with professional football players who have played at the highest level of competition for years, but might be a fundamental byproduct of the sport itself. The cumulative effect of the many blows to the head that many football players experience may simply be too much for the brain to handle, researchers say.
Several neuroscientists have been investigating football players with a condition called chronic traumatic encephalopathy (C.T.E.). Scientific progress is slow because the condition can only be diagnosed after death, when the brains donated by players can be sliced, stained, and examined for protein deposits and fibrous tangles. So far, researchers have identified C.T.E. in eight NFL players who died between the ages of 36 and 52–many of whom had extreme emotional problems in their last years. It has been found in every player of those ages examined by the two groups doing such research [The New York Times].
The regular collisions and concussions that take place on the football field may have a cumulative effect on the players’ brains, according to several new studies. In one small study, researchers found that just a few concussions can have an impact on cognitive skills 30 years later, while the other, more dramatic study found that a deceased NFL player was suffering from a severe degenerative brain disease. Taken together, the studies add to the mounting evidence that repeated blows to the head in football games lead to debilitating later-life afflictions such as dementia [Washington Post].
The biopsy of the NFL lineman Tom McHale, who played from 1987 to 1995 and who died last May at the age of 45, was announced at a press conference timed to coincide with the preparations for the Super Bowl this Sunday. The biopsy showed that McHale was suffering from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, researchers said. Known as C.T.E., the progressive condition results from repetitive head trauma and can bring on dementia in people in their 40s or 50s. Using techniques that can be administered only after a patient has died, doctors have identified C.T.E. in all six N.F.L. veterans between ages 36 and 50 who have been tested for the condition, further evidence of the dangers of improperly treated brain trauma in football [The New York Times].