The first person in the world to discover chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) was Dr. Bennet Omalu, a pathologist who was working for a coroner’s office back in 2002 when he was tasked with conducting an autopsy on former Pittsburg Steelers player Mike Webster. Webster had just died of a heart attack at 50 and Dr. Omalu had heard Webster was behaving erratically prior to his death. The doctor wondered whether years of brutal football playing may have led to brain damage and decided to check for evidence while conducting the autopsy.
Though Webster’s brain appeared normal at first glance, a closer microscopic examination revealed serious damage. Dr. Omalu thought the lab had made a mistake given the massive tau deposits seen on Webster’s brain, something that would normally be found in someone suffering from Alzheimer’s. Dr. Omalu’s important discovery coincided with the beginning of other researchers noticing the dangers that repeated blows the head can cause and the study of CTE began in earnest.
The damage caused by repeated blows to the head was first detected in the 1920s by a doctor in New Jersey who noticed boxers having balance and memory problems and dubbed the condition “punch drunk syndrome.” The doctor discovered that he did not notice the problem in skilled boxers who frequently dodge punches, but in those that were known as sluggers and took lots of repeated hits. Preliminary findings suggest that something similar happens in football players, that it is not those who have had spectacular high speed collisions on the field that are the most injured, but linemen and linebackers who continually bang their heads that may be experiencing the most damage.
According to scientists, everyone has tau in his or her brain. In people suffering from Alzheimer’s or CTE, the tau becomes damaged and forms clumps and tangles. The two diseases are very different though and each involves tau tangles in different parts of the brain. Dr. Anna McKee, an expert on CTE, says that her research has shown that tangled tau first appears in the frontal lobes in those suffering from CTE. This can lead to especially damaging psychological changes in individuals with the condition. Dr. McKee published a study recently which found that of 35 people who had played professional football, 34 of the former players’ brains had signs of CTE. Amongst this group, 20 percent died of suicide, gunshot wounds or overdoses, indications of the psychological damage the disease causes in its victims.
While Dr. McKee’s research has been valuable, it’s unfortunately only occurring in those too late to be helped. Dr. McKee describes it as walking through a cemetery and using the gravestones as clues to find out what happened to a community. To solve that problem, researchers at UCLA have announced that they are testing a new radioactive tracer that they hope will allow them to detect tau depositions in living brains. A recent study of five former NFL players and five control subjects found that the players had higher levels of tau deposits in areas of the brain that control emotions such as fear and anger. Such discoveries can help scientists better understand the damaged brains of football players and maybe even help families who are confused by emotional changes occurring in their injured loved ones.
The research has also led to talk of treatment. For example, University of Pennsylvania professor John Trojanowski has used mice to show that an experimental drug owned by Bristol-Myers Squibb halts the progression of tau degeneration in the rodents’ brains and can lead to improvements in their thinking ability. The treatments might hold out hope for both Alzheimer’s disease patients and victims of CTE. Dr. Trojanowski said he is interested in working with others to see if the treatment will be of benefit to football players or soldiers with blast injuries.
Pope McGlamry P.C., currently represents former professional football players and their families for injuries and damages sustained as a result of suffering concussions while playing football, and is actively involved in the current concussion litigation. If you or someone you love has been injured during your professional football career, you may be entitled to compensation.
Source: “Scientists hunt for ways to untangle damage of chronic traumatic encephalopathy,” by Mark Roth, published at Post-Gazette.com.
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