Contact sports athletes know all too well the dangers of concussions. While years ago, concussions weren’t taken seriously, the medical community now understands the severity of these head injuries and the long-term effects that may be the result of multiple concussions. Research into exactly is happening is on-going.
To this end, three active National Football League players are joining 40 retired NFLers in agreeing to donate their brain and spinal tissue to medical research when they die.
Baltimore Raven center Matt Birk, Seattle Seahawks linebacker Lofa Tatupu, and of and receiver Sean Morey of the Arizona Cardinals have announced their participation in this research with Boston University’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, which was created in 2008. Their announcement may seem a little odd since the actual donation doesn’t happen until their death, but there is more involved than the donation. As part of the program, potential donors are interviewed every year so researchers can follow their health and any changes in their status up to their death.
Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy
The researchers at Boston University were the ones who discovered that nine-year NFL veteran, former Tampa Bay Buccaneer Tom McHale was suffering from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease caused by head trauma. He died in 2008 at the age of 45.
CTE is a progressive neurodegenerative disease caused by repetitive trauma to the brain: concussions. A toxic buildup of a protein (called tau ) begins to affect normal brain function and then starts to kill brain cells. It was noticed in boxers first and then found in other athletes who sustained head injuries.
Diagnosis can be difficult because early on, the symptoms may include memory loss, emotional instability, erratic behavior, depression and problems with impulse control. However, CTE eventually progresses to full-blown dementia.
The other former NFL players diagnosed with CTE are former Pittsburgh Steelers Mike Webster, Terry Long and Justin Strzelczyk, as well as Andre Waters and John Grimsley. According to a press release issued by the institute,
Waters and Long committed suicide. Grimsley, an avid and experienced gunsman, died in 2008 from a self-inflicted gunshot wound that the medical examiner ruled as accidental. All six NFL CTE sufferers died by the age of 50. Damien Nash, who died in 2007 at the age of 24, is the only former NFL player to be examined neuropathologically and not have CTE. Chris Nowinski, co-founder of the non-profit Sports Legacy Institute (SLI), explained, “This means that six of six deceased former NFL players between the ages of 25 and 50 have had severe brain damage that, if they had lived, would have developed into debilitating dementia.”
Professional athletes aren’t the only ones at risk. The institute examined the brain of a dead 18-year-old boy who had sustained many concussions while playing high school football. The researchers found early evidence of CTE in his brain.