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article imageFormer NFL greats' brains to be studied for trauma-caused disease

By Lynn Herrmann     Jun 10, 2011 in Health
Boston - Brain trauma associated with the US version of football continues its close scrutiny as researchers are being allowed to examine brains of two former National Football League (NFL) running back greats who recently died within months of each other.
A group of researchers at Boston University (BU) are being allowed to conduct studies on the brains of Joe ‘the Jet” Perry and John Henry Johnson, part the San Francisco 49ers famous “Million Dollar Backfield” of the 1950s, to search for a connection between their deaths and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a neurodegenerative disease associated with repeated brain trauma.
Perry passed away in April at the age of 84 and Johnson, 81, died last week. Both families are donating the men’s brains to the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy (CSTE), the San Francisco Chronicle reports.
CTE, as more and more people are becoming painfully aware of, is a disease with a growing connection to football, specifically to hard hits associated with the game. Concussions and the resulting brain trauma are caused by hard collisions, sudden stops and hits, all glorified by instant replay and all unable to protect the brain as it gets battered in the skull.
CTE is also known as dementia pugilistica because of its association with boxers, who have been known to develop the condition, but news in recent months is focusing on football players. Among the symptoms of CTE are poor decision-making, failed personal and business relationships, drug and alcohol use, behavioral issues, depression and suicide.
Perry’s widow, Donna said: “When Joe was playing, they'd give them smelling salts and put them back in. Now the equipment is better, and they're looking into ways to protect them. We have to look at what this is doing to our children,” according to the Chronicle.
Researchers at BU last month announced former NFL star Dave Duerson’s brain, donated this year to science after his suicide at age 50, had developed an advanced stage of CTE, the trauma-induced disease which has also been found in over 20 deceased players.
Duerson is the latest football player to shed light on the alarming, and growing, problem among football players. A former Chicago Bears star player who committed suicide on Feb. 17 this year, in a final note to his family, Duerson had a simple handwritten request: “Please, see that my brain is given to the N.F.L.’s brain bank,” according to the New York Times.
Duerson, 50, shot himself in the chest, presumably to keep his brain intact for scientific study. In his final months, he had complained of his deteriorating mental condition, including headaches, blurred vision and memory loss.
Due to football’s immense popularity in the US, from the peewee leagues right up through the pros, many people will cry foul over the news. Consumed with short-termed intensity brought on by their chest-thumping, banty rooster strutting idols, fans all scream and shout for more while everyone seemingly ignores the long-term consequences.
So popular has the sport begun, it is no longer constrained by weekend boundaries. Instead, the gods of gridiron don their battle gear for Thursday through Monday night games, and all afternoons and evenings in between.
There is no known treatment for CTE and it can only be diagnosed after the victim dies. ESPN notes BU Medical School’s CSTE and the Sports Legacy Institute have collaborated on studying the disease which they have labeled a “concussion crisis” in sports.
“It’s tragic that Dave Duerson took his own life, but it’s very meaningful that he recognized the symptoms of the disorder — it validates this condition,” said Dr. Ann McKee, the neuropathologist who conducted the examination of Duerson’s brain, the Times reports.
Duerson’ tragedy followed a high-profile incident involving Chris Henry, a 26 year-old NFL player with a history of emotional issues. He died in December 2009 after falling from the bed of a moving pickup. According to CNN, the accident occurred during a fight with his fiancée.
Results from an examination of Henry’s brain were released in July 2010 and the news sent shock waves throughout the sports community. Tissue studies of his brain found damage linked to CTE. He was the first active NFL player to be discovered with the disease.
Equally as disturbing, his young brain appeared to be comparable to that of a well-seasoned veteran player who, over the course of a long football career, takes thousands of hits to the helmet. Compounding the problem, Henry never missed a game in college or the pros from a concussion.
In discussing the results on Henry’s brain, Dr. Bennet Omalu with the Brain Injury Research Institute in West Virginia said: “It didn't look like the brain of a 26-year-old. This is not something to celebrate. It is not something to be joyful about. It is something that is very humbling, very introspective. It is a call to action,” according to the San Francisco Gate.
While Omalu did not call for an end to the game of football, he insists full disclosure should be made on the results of repeated impacts to the head and how those blows may affect a person years later. “I think it's an epidemic. It's beneath the radar. We simply didn't identify it (early and properly). The more I encounter NFL players, the more I realize ... it is much more prevalent than we had identified,” Omalu added.
The NFL has donated $1 million to the study of CTE and after last month’s announcement on Duerson’s disease issued a statement noting, in part: “We hope these findings will contribute more to the understanding of C.T.E.,” according to the Times. “Our Head, Neck and Spine Medical Committee will study today’s findings, and as a league, we will continue to support the work of the scientists at the Boston University Center and elsewhere to address this issue in a forthright and effective way,” it added.
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