Sixteen athletes, including six former NFL players, have agreed to donate their brains to a program that will study the long-term effects of concussions. Of particular interest is a condition known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy (C.T.E.), which has been likened to pugilistica dementia seen in boxers. Common symptoms of the condition, a form of traumatic brain injury (TBI) include dementia, Parkinson’s, irritability and short-term memory problems. The condition can be confirmed only by postmortem tissue analysis; X-rays and magnetic resonance imaging tests cannot yet detect it.
Five out of six former N.F.L. player’s brains that have been examined in this manner have been found to have suffered from C.T.E. The study is a joint effort by Chris Nowinski’s Sports Legacy Institute and the Boston University School of Medicine. They are collaborating in the new Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy. Nowinski is a former pro wrestler and Harvard football player.
The five former N.F.L. players found to have chronic traumatic encephalopathy are former Philadelphia Eagles defensive back Andre Waters, and former Pittsburgh Steelers Mike Webster, Terry Long and Justin Strzelczyk, and former Houston Oilers linebacker John Grimsley.
Because each player died relatively young, from 36 to 50, they provided an opportunity to examine brain abnormalities that are exceedingly rare in someone of that age without a history of repetitive brain injury.
Grimsley died in February at 45 after he shot himself in the chest in what police ruled an accident. Subsequent analysis of his brain tissue confirmed the presence of neurofibrillary tangles that had already begun to affect Grimsley’s behavior and memory. Grimsley’s wife said he told her he had sustained eight or nine concussions during his nine seasons in the N.F.L. from 1984 through 1993.
The only former N.F.L. player whose brain did not show C.T.E. was the former running back Damien Nash, who died last year at 24 after collapsing while playing basketball. C.T.E. has almost never been found in anyone that young. Once triggered, C.T.E. seems to progress.
Most of those afflicted show symptoms 10 or 20 years after retirement. It progresses inexorably until death. New England Patriots linebacker Ted Johnsons neurologist has pointed to Johnson’s multiple concussions between 2002-05 as a cause of his permanent and degenerative problems with memory and depression.
The N.F.L. is conducting its own study on concussions, and N.F.L. spokesman Greg Aiello said he expected the results to be published in 2010. N.F.L. officials have contended that the cases of C.T.E. are isolated incidents from which no conclusions can be drawn. Players at all levels of football are known to not reveal their concussions for fear of being removed from games or being seen as weak.
Among former NFL players who have agreed to donate their brains after their deaths are Ted Johnson, Frank Wycheck, Isaiah Kacyvenski and Ben Lynch. Also participating are Noah Welch, who played hockey for the Florida Panthers last season, and Cindy Parlow, a former member of the U.S. national soccer team.