Study shows al­most all had brain disease

The Hamilton Spectator - - SPORTS - LIND­SEY TAN­NER

Re­search on 202 for­mer foot­ball play­ers found ev­i­dence of brain disease in nearly all of them, from ath­letes in the Cana­dian Foot­ball League, Na­tional Foot­ball League, col­lege and even high school.

It’s the largest up­date on chronic trau­matic en­cephalopa­thy, or CTE, a brain disease linked with re­peated head blows.

But the re­port doesn’t con­firm that the con­di­tion is com­mon in all foot­ball play­ers; it re­flects high oc­cur­rence in sam­ples at a Bos­ton brain bank that stud­ies CTE. Many donors or their fam­i­lies con­trib­uted be­cause of the play­ers’ re­peated con­cus­sions and trou­bling symp­toms be­fore death.

“There are many ques­tions that re­main unan­swered,” said lead au­thor Dr. Ann McKee, a Bos­ton Univer­sity neu­ro­sci­en­tist.

“How com­mon is this” in the gen­eral pop­u­la­tion and all foot­ball play­ers?

“How many years of foot­ball is too many?” and “What is the ge­netic risk? Some play­ers do not have ev­i­dence of this disease de­spite long play­ing years,” she noted.

It’s also un­cer­tain if some play­ers’ life­style habits — al­co­hol, drugs, steroids, diet — might some­how con­trib­ute, McKee said.

Dr. Munro Cul­lum, a neu­ropsy­chol­o­gist at UT South­west­ern Med­i­cal Cen­ter in Dal­las, em­pha­sized that the re­port is based on a se­lec­tive sam­ple of men who were not nec­es­sar­ily rep­re­sen­ta­tive of all foot­ball play­ers. He said prob­lems other than CTE might ex­plain some of their most com­mon symp­toms be­fore death — de­pres­sion, im­pul­siv­ity and be­hav­iour changes. He was not in­volved in the re­port. McKee said re­search from the brain bank may lead to an­swers and an un­der­stand­ing of how to de­tect the disease in life, “while there’s still a chance to do some­thing about it.” There’s no known treat­ment.

The strong­est sci­en­tific ev­i­dence says CTE can only be di­ag­nosed by ex­am­in­ing brains af­ter death, al­though some re­searchers are ex­per­i­ment­ing with tests per­formed on the liv­ing. Many sci­en­tists be­lieve that re­peated blows to the head in­crease risks for de­vel­op­ing CTE, lead­ing to pro­gres­sive loss of nor­mal brain mat­ter and an ab­nor­mal buildup of a pro­tein called tau. Com­bat vet­er­ans and ath­letes in rough con­tact sports like foot­ball and box­ing are among those thought to be most at risk.

The new re­port was pub­lished in the Jour­nal of the Amer­i­can Med­i­cal As­so­ci­a­tion on Tues­day.

CTE was di­ag­nosed in 177 for­mer play­ers or nearly 90 per cent of brains stud­ied. That in­cludes seven of eight from for­mer CFL play­ers, 110 of 111 brains from for­mer NFL play­ers; 48 of 53 col­lege play­ers; nine of 14 semi-pro­fes­sional play­ers, and three of 14 high school play­ers. The disease was not found in brains from two younger play­ers.

A panel of neu­ropathol­o­gists made the di­ag­no­sis by ex­am­in­ing brains, us­ing re­cent cri­te­ria from the Na­tional In­sti­tute of Neu­ro­log­i­cal Dis­or­ders and Stroke, McKee said.

The NFL is­sued a state­ment say­ing these re­ports are im­por­tant for ad­vanc­ing science re­lated to head trauma and said the league “will con­tinue to work with a wide range of ex­perts to im­prove the health of cur­rent and for­mer NFL ath­letes.”

Af­ter years of de­nials, the NFL ac­knowl­edged a link be­tween head blows and brain disease and agreed in a $1 bil­lion set­tle­ment to com­pen­sate for­mer play­ers who had ac­cused the league of hid­ing the risks. The CFL is fac­ing a $200-mil­lion class-ac­tion law­suit over con­cus­sions and brain trauma.

For­mer com­mis­sioner Jef­frey Or­ridge drew wide­spread crit­i­cism dur­ing last year’s Grey Cup when he de­nied the ex­is­tence of a link be­tween play­ing foot­ball and the de­vel­op­ment of CTE. Or­ridge stepped down from the job in June and newly ap­pointed league boss Randy Am­brosie hasn’t spo­ken at length on head in­juries. He said at a news con­fer­ence last month that he is “deeply com­mit­ted” to player safety.

Tues­day’s jour­nal up­date in­cludes many pre­vi­ously re­ported cases, in­clud­ing for­mer NFL play­ers Bubba Smith, Ken Stabler, Ju­nior Seau and Dave Duer­son.

New ones in­clude re­tired tight end Frank Wain­right, whose 10-year NFL ca­reer in­cluded stints with the Mi­ami, New Or­leans and Bal­ti­more. Wain­right died last Oc­to­ber at age 48 from a heart at­tack trig­gered by bleed­ing in the brain, said his wife, Sta­cie. She said he had strug­gled al­most eight years with fright­en­ing symp­toms in­clud­ing con­fu­sion, mem­ory loss and be­hav­iour changes.

Wain­right played be­fore the league adopted stricter safety rules and had many con­cus­sions, she said.

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