Chronic traumatic encephalopathy
After retiring from football, John Grimsley—an All-Pro linebacker who played nine seasons with the Houston Oilers and Miami Dolphins—started to have trouble remembering things and doing simple physical tasks. Then, in February 2009, at age 45, he accidentally shot himself in the chest while cleaning his gun—even though he had been a hunter most of his life, and had handled guns since childhood. He died from the wound.
Even before the fatal accident, Grimsley’s wife Virginia had known something was terribly wrong with her husband, and wondered if the nine concussions he had suffered playing football had something to do with it. She agreed to donate his brain to Boston University School of Medicine’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy (CSTE).
At the center, Dr. Ann McKee analyzed tissue from Grimsley’s brain and found extensive deposits of the tau protein, an indicator of the degenerative brain disease called chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE. Dr. McKee subsequently examined the brains of five other deceased football players and found similar evidence of the disease.
By documenting the link between head injuries and CTE—a brain disease that is similar in many ways to Alzheimer’s—BUSM and the CSTE put themselves at the forefront of what has become a national movement to make sports safer for participants.
Since it was established in 2008, the CSTE has released a series of findings that has made the NFL take notice. The league has changed its rules and launched programs to better protect players from brain injury. In April 2010, the NFL donated $1 million to support the center’s research.
Players who in years past might have been sent back onto the field after having their “bell rung” now are kept out of action until all their symptoms have cleared up. In the 2009-2010 NFL season, for example, two top quarterbacks who had recently suffered concussions—Ben Roethlisberger of the Pittsburgh Steelers and Kurt Warner of the Arizona Cardinals—sat out late-season games that were critical to their teams’ playoff hopes.
Supported by grants from the National Institutes of Health, the NFL, and the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment, researchers at the CSTE are studying how traumatic head injuries can develop into chronic, debilitating brain disorders. Dr. McKee recently determined that some of the symptoms of CTE bear a strong resemblance to Parkinson’s disease and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, also known as “Lou Gehrig’s disease”).
These findings are important not just to athletes, but to anyone at risk of head injury, including members of the military, who may be exposed to repeated blows to the head in combat situations. Dr. McKee and her colleagues have noted that a possible explanation for high rates of ALS among veterans could be the greater incidence of head trauma.
Most of the initial research at the center has involved analysis of the brains of deceased athletes. More recently, Dr. Robert Cantu and Dr. Bob Stern have been working with living athletes, using MRI brain scans, analyzing cerebrospinal fluid, and testing memory and cognitive ability. Researchers hope to someday devise a simple, non-invasive test to determine whether an individual has CTE.
While the search goes on for better diagnosis and treatment options, Dr. Cantu and center co-director Chris Nowinski are doing what they can to prevent the disease now, holding workshops and meetings with trainers, coaches, league officials, and the athletes involved.
CTE is a devastating disorder, but the researchers of the BU Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy are dedicated to determining how to diagnose, treat, prevent, and someday cure this disease.
Sample giving opportunities
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