Re­port on CTE raises even more ques­tions

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - SPORTS -

CHICAGO — Re­search on 202 for­mer foot­ball play­ers found ev­i­dence of a brain dis­ease linked to re­peated head blows in nearly all of them, from ath­letes in the Na­tional Foot­ball League, col­lege and even high school.

It’s the largest up­date on chronic trau­matic en­cephalopa­thy, a de­bil­i­tat­ing brain dis­ease that can cause a range of symp­toms in­clud­ing mem­ory loss.

The re­port doesn’t con­firm that the con­di­tion is com­mon in all foot­ball play­ers; it re­flects high oc­cur­rences 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 they died.

One of the do­nated brains was from Ron­nie Cave­ness, an All-Amer­i­can line­backer for the Arkansas Ra­zor­backs who went on to play for the Hous­ton Oil­ers

and Kansas City Chiefs in the Amer­i­can Foot­ball League. He died May 10, 2014, at age 71. In col­lege, he helped lead the Ra­zor­backs to an un­de­feated sea­son and a share of the na­tional ti­tle in 1964.

One of Cave­ness’ team­mates at Arkansas was Jerry Jones, now the owner of the Dal­las Cow­boys. Jones has re­jected the be­lief that there is a link be­tween foot­ball and CTE.

“There are many ques­tions that re­main unan­swered,” said Dr. Ann McKee, a Bos­ton Univer­sity neu­ro­sci­en­tist and lead au­thor of the new re­port. “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 be­hav­ior 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.” Cur­rently, 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 Tues­day in the Jour­nal of the Amer­i­can Med­i­cal As­so­ci­a­tion.

CTE was di­ag­nosed in 177 for­mer play­ers or nearly 90 per­cent of brains stud­ied. That in­cludes 110 of 111 brains from for­mer NFL play­ers; 48 of 53 col­lege play­ers; nine of 14 semi-pro­fes­sional play­ers, seven of eight Cana­dian Foot­ball league 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 brain tis­sue, 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 jour­nal up­date in­cludes many pre­vi­ously re­ported cases, in­clud­ing for­mer NFL play­ers Bubba Smith, Ken Stabler, Dave Duer­son and Ralph Wen­zel.

New ones in­clude re­tired tight end Frank Wain­right, whose 10-year NFL ca­reer in­cluded stints with the Mi­ami Dol­phins, New Orleans Saints and Bal­ti­more Ravens. Wain­right died in April 2016 at age 48 from a heart at­tack trig­gered by bleed­ing in the brain. His wife, Sta­cie, said he had strug­gled al­most eight years with fright­en­ing symp­toms in­clud­ing con­fu­sion, mem­ory loss and be­hav­ior changes.

Wain­right played be­fore the league adopted stricter safety rules and had many con­cus­sions, she said. He feared CTE and was adamant about do­nat­ing his brain, she said.

“A lot of fam­i­lies are re­ally trag­i­cally af­fected by it — not even men­tion­ing what these men are go­ing through and they’re re­ally not sure what is hap­pen­ing to them. It’s like a storm that you can’t quite get out of,” his wife said.

Frank Wy­check, an­other for­mer NFL tight end, said he wor­ries that con­cus­sions dur­ing his nine-year ca­reer — the last seven with the Ten­nessee Ti­tans — have left him with CTE and he plans to do­nate his brain to re­search.

“Some peo­ple have heads made of con­crete, and it doesn’t re­ally af­fect some of those guys,” he said. “But CTE is real.”

“I know I’m suf­fer­ing through it, and it’s been a strug­gle and I feel for all the guys out there that are go­ing through this,” said Wy­check, 45.

In the new re­port, McKee and col­leagues found the most se­vere dis­ease in for­mer pro­fes­sional play­ers; mild dis­ease was found in all three for­mer high school play­ers di­ag­nosed with the dis­ease. Brain bank re­searchers pre­vi­ously re­ported that the ear­li­est known ev­i­dence of CTE was found in a high school ath­lete who played foot­ball and other sports who died at age 18. He was not in­cluded in the cur­rent re­port.

The av­er­age age of death among all play­ers stud­ied was 66. There were 18 sui­cides among the 177 di­ag­nosed.


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