Tackling the Issue of CTE in Sports

football CTEWith another football season on the horizon, coupled with last week’s induction of legendary linebacker Junior Seau into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, the controversial topic of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) is back on the front burner. CTE is a type of degenerative brain disease that has become a hot button issue in the world of contact sports.

Following Seau’s retirement in 2010 after an extraordinary 20-year career, his family began to notice bouts of insomnia, depression, extreme mood swings, and emotional withdrawal. “It was hard,” his daughter, Sydney, told Yahoo Sports. “[W]e were all reaching for someone that wasn’t exactly reaching back, even though…we knew that he wanted to.”

In 2012, three years after retiring, the 43 year-old Seau died in his California home from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) posthumously diagnosed Seau with CTE, thought to be caused by repeated blows to the head. CTE was first attributed to boxers in the late 1920s, when doctors labeled a person exhibiting these symptoms as “punch-drunk.” According to a 2013 Cerebrum article by co-founder of the Sports Legacy Institute Chris Nowinski, symptoms include memory loss, aggression, depression, confusion, impaired judgement or impulse control, and eventually, progressive dementia.

At a meeting held by NIH, where Seau’s brain was donated for research, it was said that “[a]thletes playing competitive football over the course of high school and college, for example, are estimated to suffer upwards of 8,000 hits to the head.” The indications of CTE oftentimes won’t show up until months, years, or even decades afterwards.

When Seau’s career was just taking off in the early 1990s, he would complain of “burning” headaches. He was aware of the physical toll that the sport was taking, commenting in a 1996 interview, “I’m a twenty-seven year old guy living in probably a thirty-eight year old body. It’s tough on you, and it wears and tears, but that’s the sacrifice you take.”

Almost one year before Seau’s suicide, fellow NFL player Dave Duerson took his own life in a similar manner, after recognizing his own symptoms of the degenerative brain disease. Duerson left a note requesting that his brain be donated to a brain bank for further study. The bank turned out to be the lab of Ann McKee, M.D., a Dana Alliance member who specializes in CTE research at Boston University School of Medicine’s. Duerson’s brain was sent to McKee’s CTE Center, where she found “indisputable evidence” of CTE in his tissue samples.

The lawsuit by more than 4500 players against the league “for not warning players and hiding the damage of brain injury” reached a settlement this past April. But there is an appeal period, and several players have already done so. Numerous families, including Seau’s, are suing independently as well.

Advancements in imaging technology, as chronicled in Dana’s recent interview with Michael Lipton, Ph.D., have allowed researchers to better understand the relationship between head impacts and cognitive impairments; but, as of now, CTE can only be detected after death. Working with her team at Boston University, McKee came up with a four-stage classification system that reveals the progressive nature of CTE—a breakthrough that Nowinski predicts “should allow CTE to soon be diagnosed in living people.”

– Seimi Rurup

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