Study ex­am­ined 111 for­mer NFL play­ers; only one didn’t have CTE

The Denver Post - - FRONT PAGE - By Rick Maese

Re­searchers study­ing the link be­tween foot­ball and chronic trau­matic en­cephalopa­thy found that 99 per­cent of the brains do­nated by fam­i­lies of for­mer NFL play­ers showed signs of the neu­rode­gen­er­a­tive dis­ease, ac­cord­ing to a new study pub­lished Tues­day.

In all, re­searchers from Bos­ton Univer­sity School of Medicine and the VA Bos­ton Health­care Sys­tem ex­am­ined 202 brains that be­longed to men who played foot­ball at all lev­els and were later do­nated for re­search. They found CTE in 177 of them — 87 per­cent.

While they found ev­i­dence of the dis­ease across all lev­els of play, the high­est per­cent­age was found among those who com­peted at the high­est level; all but one of the 111 brains be­long­ing to exNFL play­ers were di­ag­nosed post-mortem with CTE.

“Ob­vi­ously, this doesn’t rep­re­sent the preva­lence in the gen­eral pop­u­la­tion, but the fact that we’ve been able to gather this high a num­ber of cases in such a short pe­riod of time says that this dis­ease is not un­com­mon,” said neu­ropathol­o­gist Ann McKee, the re­searcher cred­ited with some of the most high­pro­file CTE di­ag­noses. “In fact, I think it’s much more com­mon than we cur­rently re­al­ize. And more im­por­tantly, this is a prob­lem in foot­ball that we need to ad­dress and we need to ad­dress now in or­der to bring some hope and op­ti­mism to foot­ball play­ers.”

McKee cau­tions that the study has some lim­i­ta­tions and doesn’t at­tempt to pin­point a CTE rate. The brains stud­ied were mostly do­nated by con­cerned fam­i­lies, which

means they weren’t random and not nec­es­sar­ily rep­re­sen­ta­tive of all men who have played foot­ball.

“A fam­ily is much more likely to do­nate if they’re con­cerned about their loved one — if they’re ex­hibit­ing symp­toms or signs that are con­cern­ing them, or if they died ac­ci­den­tally or es­pe­cially if they com­mit­ted sui­cide,” she said. “It skews for ac­ci­den­tal deaths, sui­cide and in­di­vid­u­als with dis­abling or dis­com­fort­ing symp­toms.”

While the study isn’t fo­cused on causal­ity, McKee says it pro­vides “over­whelm­ing cir­cum­stan­tial ev­i­dence that CTE is linked to foot­ball.”

The NFL pledged $100 mil­lion for con­cus­sion-re­lated re­search last Septem­ber — $60 mil­lion on tech­no­log­i­cal de­vel­op­ment, with an em­pha­sis on im­prov­ing hel­mets, and $40 mil­lion ear­marked for med­i­cal re­search — and in a state­ment a league spokesman ex­pressed ap­pre­ci­a­tion for the lat­est study.

“The med­i­cal and sci­en­tific com­mu­ni­ties will ben­e­fit from this pub­li­ca­tion and the NFL will con­tinue to work with a wide range of ex­perts to im­prove the health of cur­rent and for­mer NFL ath­letes,” said NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy. “As noted by the au­thors, there are still many unan­swered ques­tions re­lat­ing to the cause, in­ci­dence and preva­lence of long-term ef­fects of head trauma such as CTE. The NFL is com­mit­ted to sup­port­ing sci­en­tific re­search into CTE and ad­vanc­ing progress in the pre­ven­tion and treat­ment of head in­juries.”

The study marks the largest CTE case se­ries ever pub­lished. The re­search was drawn from a brain bank es­tab­lished and main­tained by the VA Bos­ton Health­care Sys­tem, Bos­ton Univer­sity School of Medicine and the Con­cus­sion Legacy Foun­da­tion.

The 177 brains found to have CTE be­longed to for­mer play­ers who had an av­er­age of 15 years of foot­ball ex­pe­ri­ence. In ad­di­tion to the NFL di­ag­noses, the group in­cluded three of 14 who played at the high school level, 48 of 53 who played in col­lege, nine of 14 who com­peted semipro­fes­sion­ally and seven of eight who played in the Cana­dian Foot­ball League.

“To me, it’s very con­cern­ing that we have col­lege-level play­ers who have se­vere CTE who did not go on to play pro­fes­sion­ally,” McKee said. “That means they most likely re­tired be­fore the age of 25 and we still are see­ing in some of those in­di­vid­u­als very se­vere reper­cus­sions.”

The re­searchers distin­guished be­tween mild and se­vere cases of CTE, find­ing the ma­jor­ity of for­mer col­lege (56 per­cent), semipro (56 per­cent) and pro­fes­sional (86 per­cent) play­ers to have ex­hib­ited se­vere pathol­ogy.

The im­pact of con­cus­sions and head trauma meted out on the foot­ball field has been an ac­tive area of study in re­cent years. And while much of the re­search has high­lighted the po­ten­tial long-term dan­gers posed by foot­ball, JAMA Neu­rol­ogy pub­lished a study this month that showed not all for­mer play­ers suf­fer from cog­ni­tive im­pair­ment.

Re­searchers at the Univer­sity of Penn­syl­va­nia looked at Wis­con­sin men who grad­u­ated high school in 1957, com­par­ing those who played foot­ball in school and those who didn’t.

The men were as­sessed for de­pres­sion and cog­ni­tive im­pair­ment later in life - in their 60s and 70s - and the re­search found sim­i­lar out­comes for those who played high school foot­ball and those who didn’t.

That study also had its lim­i­ta­tions, and the au­thors noted that the game 60 years ago is dif­fer­ent in many ways from the pre­sent-day high school foot­ball ex­pe­ri­ence, from play­ing style to equip­ment to the rule book.

As­so­ci­ated Press file

For­mer Ti­tans tight end Frank Wy­check wor­ries about the ef­fect con­cus­sions have had on him.

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