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New Motor Neuron Disease That Afflicts Football Players and Boxers

March 23, 2012

In the wake of the lawsuits against the NFL by former players over concussion-related symptoms I thought I would look back at some of the work that has been developing in the field of concussion research.

[See my post Parents and Coaches: Free Library on Concussions for more information on how to protect your child.]

Back in early 2009, the results for a study commissioned by the NFL was leaked just before a Boston University conference that was supposed to explore the impact of concussions on athletes…

The study showed that memory-related diseases like dementia and Alzheimer’s were prevalent among former players. In fact, it reported that they were 19 times more likely to suffer from these diseases than the male population in the U.S.

What the researchers of the study found was a connection between repeated blows to the head and a new motor neuron disease that looks a lot like Lou Gehrig’s diseas, or amyotrophic laterla scerosis (ALS). Those results were eventually published the September 2010 issue of Journal of Neuropathology and Experimental Neurology.

The results made one significant point: ALS-like diseases don’t all come out of nowhere. Your life choices can cause an ALS-like disease.

The researchers behind the study looked at 12 brains and spinal cords that belonged to former athletes. These brains and spinal cords were stored in the CSTE brain bank and showed evidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).

Wally Hilgenberg and Eric Scoggins–two former NFL players–had motor neuron disease late in their lives. Scoggins died in 2009 and Hilgenberg in 2008. Both were diagnosed with ALS, but showed symptoms that were connected to CTE, like cognitive decline and changes in behavior.

Of these players diagnosed with ALS, the researchers found something interesting: the abnormal protein TDP-43 in the brain and spinal cord was in a unique pattern. There was also an abnormal form of the protein tau.

You will not find abnormal tau deposits in ALS. What the researchers found was a new motor neuron disease.

The researchers have named this disease “chronic traumatic encephalomyelopathy” (CTEM), a disease they think is caused by repeated head trauma…trauma similar to what boxers and football players suffer.

The NFL’s Reaction to the Concussion Study

Understandably the NFL tried to distance them from themselves from it. But it promoted a slew of new hearings.

The study was conducted at the University of Michigan, so you can probably see why the Michigan Democrat John Conyers, who heads the House Judiciary Committee, ordered what turned out to be several hearings on the topic.

Dozens of researchers involved in the study testified, including players, former players, doctors, player’s wives, player’s widows, player’s union officials and NFL executives. The head researcher behind the study said this of the hearings:

There were a lot of ex–football players there. The older ones reminded you of a neurology clinic. It was very sobering. You got the sense that this was mainstream.

While some executives weren’t confident in the results, it is believed that Goodell and other officials in the league understood their could be a concussion problem in football because, under Goodell’s leadership, the NFL instituted a fund to help retired players who suffered from dementia.

Dr. Rick Lehman is a distinguished orthopedic surgeon in St. Louis, Missouri and an articular cartilage reconstruction pioneer. He owns U. S. Sports Medicine in Kirkwood, MO, and LehmanHealth. Learn more about Dr. Rick.

 

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