Wednesday, January 28, 2009

This Is Your Brain On Football

As a big fan of this sport I found this story particularly disturbing:

Until recently, the best medical definition for concussion was a jarring blow to the head that temporarily stunned the senses, occasionally leading to unconsciousness. It has been considered an invisible injury, impossible to test -- no MRI, no CT scan can detect it.

But today, using tissue from retired NFL athletes culled posthumously, the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy (CSTE), at the Boston University School of Medicine, is shedding light on what concussions look like in the brain. The findings are stunning. Far from innocuous, invisible injuries, concussions confer tremendous brain damage. That damage has a name: chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).

On Tuesday afternoon, researchers at the CSTE released a study about the sixth documented case of CTE in former NFL player Tom McHale, who died in 2008 at the age of 45, and the youngest case to date, an 18-year-old multi-sport athlete who suffered multiple concussions.

While CTE in an ex-NFL player's brain may have been expected, the beginnings of brain damage in an 18-year-old brain was a "shocking" finding, according to Dr. Ann McKee, a neuropathologist at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Bedford, Massachusetts, and co-director of the CSTE.

"We think this is how chronic traumatic encephalopathy starts," said McKee. "This is speculation, but I think we can assume that this would have continued to expand."

CTE has thus far been found in the brains of six out of six former NFL players.

"What's been surprising is that it's so extensive," said McKee. "It's throughout the brain, not just on the superficial aspects of the brain, but it's deep inside."

CSTE studies reveal brown tangles flecked throughout the brain tissue of former NFL players who died young -- some as early as their 30s or 40s.

McKee, who also studies Alzheimer's disease, says the tangles closely resemble what might be found in the brain of an 80-year-old with dementia.

"I knew what traumatic brain disease looked like in the very end stages, in the most severe cases," said McKee. "To see the kind of changes we're seeing in 45-year-olds is basically unheard of."

I was pretty unhappy as a kid when my momma decided that she wasn't going to let me play football; in Texas, that's tantamount to denying your children permission to see the next Harry Potter flick, forever. It's stories like this one and others that make me very thankful that she was so protective.

(hat tip: Shannon)

[Update: It seems that Andrew Sullivan has linked to the same news story and titled his post just as I have (I wrote this post last night after getting an email from my sister) but a quick perusal of the blogosphere shows that many have done the same so I feel less like an inadvertent plagiarist but also slightly less clever as well.]


Mahndisa S. Rigmaiden said...

01 28 09

Thanks for posting this. I always asked what a concussion was but never got a sound answer. This answers a question all the way from childhood! Whoa!

And not playing football in Texas is strange! My parents denied my brother the privilage of playing football because my mother was a strong pacifist at some point. But since my brother is ultra machisimo, this seemed to have scarred him. Every now and then over a few drinks he still might bring it up how it pissed him off so much.

I guess you are more independent in your thinking or don't have the need to pulverize other dudes. When I was a little girl, I used to play football with the neighborhood boys. That is until my mother forbade me because she was afraid I would get sterilized by injury or get brain damage.

Apparently her fears were somewhat justified!

JBW said...

Thanks for reading, Mahndisa. I love football and simultaneously don't feel the need to beat the crap out of other guys. I'd say your momma and mine were both more prescient than they seemed at the time.