Tom McHale, who played guard for three NFL teams from 1987 to 1995, was suffering from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), brain damage caused by repeated head trauma, when he died from a multiple-drug overdose last year, researchers at Boston University School of Medicine announced today.
Over the past two years, researchers have examined the brains of seven former NFL players, including McHale, all of whom died by the age of 50. Six turned out to have had CTE, which is characterized by the buildup of toxic proteins that form dangerous tangles in the brain, and that at the moment, can be found only by autopsy. CTE can cause victims to lose control of their emotions and impulses and to suffer memory loss and depression and can eventually lead to dementia.
All of the ex-NFL players diagnosed with CTE died under unusual, even bizarre, circumstances, though the precise relationship between their brain damage and their behavior remains unclear. For example, Justin Strzelczyk died in a fiery car wreck in 2004 after experiencing hallucinatory visions.
Terry Long committed suicide in 2005, as did Andre Waters, in 2006. John Grimsley, an experienced gunman, died last year from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
"Initially referred to as dementia pugilistica because of the boxers who were originally studied, CTE is now being seen in other athletes," says Dr.Ann McKee, who did the post-mortems on Grimsley and McHale. McKee is co-director of the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, a collaboration between BU and the Sports Legacy Institute, the organization founded by Chris Nowinski, a former WWE wrestler and Harvard football player, to solicit and study the brains of former athletes. She noted that while the symptoms of CTE can seem similar to those of Alzheimer's disease, "they represent a distinct disease with a distinct cause, namely repetitive head trauma."
Indeed, experts say CTE is the only fully preventable cause of dementia.
Stop smashing the head, particularly where and when it is particularly vulnerable, and you will stop brain damage. While scientists are now beginning to look for specific factors that might put individuals at particular risk for CTE, one thing is clear: Returning to play too soon after a concussion is extremely dangerous. But it's another, murkier, issue that has become even more worrisome for researchers studying concussions:
The brain damage of CTE may accumulate from blow to blow even when athletes seem to recover fully between injuries.
The NFL, whose Mild Traumatic Brain Injury (MTBI) committee has found "no evidence of worsening injury or chronic cumulative effects of multiple MTBIs in NFL players," says it's too early to draw that conclusion. For example, spokesman Greg Aiello tells ESPN the Magazine: "Hundreds of thousands of people have played football and other sports without experiencing any problem of this type. There continues to be considerable debate within the medical community on the precise long-term effects of concussions and how they relate to other risk factors, including pre-existing conditions or family history. We are currently funding an independent medical study of retired NFL players on the long-term effects of concussion, which we hope will contribute to the overall understanding of this issue."
But it's something to ponder this Super Bowl Sunday. Announcers and analysts are sure to glorify Ben Roethlisberger for bouncing back from the concussion that left him lying on the turf for nearly 15 minutes in Week 17, just as he came back from at least two concussions in 2006. But what if he's one hit away from brain damage he'll feel 15 years from now?
What if he's already one hit beyond it?