September 28, 2008

Concussion Study Among Athletes

Twelve retired sports players have pledged to donate their brains to Boston University’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy (at BU's School of Medicine) which is devoted to studying the long-term effects of concussions. The Center said last week in a press release that the brain of former Houston Oilers linebacker John Grimsley "... exhibited pronounced chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a condition that is often seen in retired athletes, such as boxers, who have a history of repeated concussions.

The New York Times notes that one of the NFL players who is donating his brain, former New England Patriots linebacker Ted Johnson, "... hoped the center would help clarify the issue of concussions’ long-term effects, which have been tied to cognitive impairment and depression in several published studies." The Times reports that the NFL believes that "... the long-term effects of concussions are uncertain."

Players do not intend their donation to be a condemnation of the NFL; the Times quotes Johnson: "I'm not being vindictive. I'm not trying to reach up from the grave and get the NFL. But any doctor who doesn't connect concussions with long-term effects should be ashamed of themselves." quotes former NFL linebacker Isaiah Kacyvenski: "There might be a connotation that this is a witch hunt, point the finger at the NFL. It's just not like that."

Six NFL players' brains have been examined post-mortem, and five were found to have evidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy. Dr. Ann C. McKee, a co-director of the new brain-study center, told the Times:
“I’ve seen thousands of brains of individuals with neurogenerative diseases and debilitating diseases. I can say this is identical to the pugilistica dementia that I’ve seen in boxers in their 70s and 80s. It’s milder because the patients are younger. But once triggered, it seems to progress. The people that develop this disease, most of them show symptoms 10 or 20 years after retirement. It progresses inexorably until death.”
While it's only five cases, McKee says, it is a strong argument for "unequivocal evidence that on-field impacts were a primary cause of the damage, perhaps in association with genetic and other factors her program will attempt to identify."

Boston University released a statement about the study on September 26, which includes some convincing images of brain damage which is an "an indicator of the degenerative brain disease CTE." The images from Dr. McKee show a "microscopic brain section from a 65-year-old control subject," along with a creepy image of linebacker John Grimsley's brain, and a disturbing image of the same cells of "a 73-year-old world-champion boxer with end-stage CTE and dementia."

The press release at Boston University quotes John Grimsley's wife Virginia, who says she plans to reach out to more NFL players, urging them to consider participating in the BU study. "The stigma needs to go away that you’re a sissy if you come out of the game and don’t go back in. A concussion is a big deal. It’s not just a ding."

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