Head trauma could make football players end up with an ALS-like disease later in life

Boston University researchers identified an ALS-like condition that is seen in primarily in athletes. This is the first time this type of disease has been documented and could open up new treatments options.
Written by Boonsri Dickinson, Contributing Editor on

You might want to think twice about pursuing the American dream of playing professional football. Researchers found that concussions and brain injuries could make one end up like baseball player Lou Gehrig.

My SmartPlanet colleague Melanie Kaplan spoke to 51-year-old retired NFL defensive lineman George Visger about suffering from brain damage (caused by a number of concussions during his career). Visger said:

The human body was not meant to play football. My Orange Bowl and Super Bowl rings are not worth what my family goes through dealing with my short term memory issues, anger management issues and lack of judgment.

Boston University researchers have discovered a link between getting banged in the head a lot (repetitive head trauma) and a similar disease to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) or Lou Gehrig's disease.

In fact, Yankees baseball player Lou Gehrig might not have even had Lou Gehrig's disease. Concussions and other brain trauma might have been to blame. Perhaps his record of playing 2,036 consecutive games over 14 years had something to do with it. He had at least five concussions and one time he had a baseball hit him in the head while he was helmet-less.

“The significance of this finding is that not all ALS-like disease attacks out of the blue—sometimes it’s because of our choices in life,” Ann McKee, a codirector of BU’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy (CSTE) said in a statement. “The more we know about what behaviors hasten disease, the more we can practice prevention.”

ALS has been reported in a number of sports, according to the BU report:

  • professional soccer players are 6.5 times as likely to suffer from ALS than the general public
  • retired NFL players are eight times as likely to suffer from ALS than the male population
  • military veterans (with head injuries) are 2.3 times as likely to suffer from ALS than the general public

But there's increasing evidence that many athletes are misdiagnosed. Even though athletes are being diagnosed with ALS at alarming rates, the researchers argue that the players should be treated differently than ALS patients because they have a different fatal disease.

The researchers looked at the brains and spinal cords of 12 deceased athletes and found evidence of cognitive decline and behavioral changes in the subjects.

There was another peculiar thing. Three of the athletes had been diagnosed with ALS had abnormal tau deposits in the brain, which indicates that these players suffered from neurodegenerative disease chronic traumatic  encephalopathy.

The deposits are not seen in ALS patients.

The researchers also found abnormal protein TDP-43 in the brain and spinal cord, which can ultimately destroy brain cells.

Essentially what Minnesota vikings Wally Hilgenberg had is different than what famous British physicist Stephen Hawking has. Hawking has ALS — a disease that weakens the body, but the person's mind doesn't decline like it does in professional athletes with the ALS-like disease.

“If repetitive head trauma can spark this kind of neurodegeneration,” McKee said in a statement, “then by studying the effects of repetitive mild brain trauma, we can learn about the initial, early triggers of neurodegenerative disease and how to slow, reverse, and lessen them.”

Now that's a lot to think about as you watch the kick off to this year's football season.

Ex-NFL player Kevin Turner, who was diagnosed with ALS, told the Globe:

Playing NFL football was a dream come true. I just never thought in 20 years I would be fighting for my life.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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