Researchers this morning confirmed what former National Football League player Dave Duerson must have feared when he shot himself in the abdomen back in February, killing the 51 year old who had starred for several teams as a safety. An autopsy study showed that Duerson’s brain was riddled with classic signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a form of brain damage that is becoming an increasing concern among athletes in violent contact sports. Duerson’s form of suicide was apparently carefully chosen to preserve his brain as he had texted his family that he wanted the organ to be examined at the Boston University Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy (CSTE).
At a press conference there today, researchers reported that there was evidence of moderately advanced CTE in several regions of Duerson’s brain, including the frontal cortex, amygdala, and hippocampus, which play roles in impulse control, mood, memory, and other cognitive functions. “Dave Duerson had classic pathological CTE and no sign of any other disease,” neuropathologist and CSTE Co-Director Ann McKee told the press conference. McKee notes that there’s evidence suggesting CTE predisposes people to suicide, although how remains unclear; a colleague called it a “chicken and the egg problem,” explaining that CTE may cause problems in life that encourage suicides rather than specifically promote suicidal behavior by altering the working of the brain.
Collisions that cause concussions and even lesser hits appear to spur the development of CTE. At the press conference CSTE Co-Director Chris Nowinski, a former college football player and professional wrestler, urged youth football coaches to carefully control how much violent contact there is during practices as to reduce the overall number of hits. “It’s amazing we have pitch counts [in youth baseball] to protect elbow ligaments, but we do not count how often [young football players] hit their heads to protect their brains,” he says.
A major goal of CSTE is to develop methods to diagnose and monitor CTE during life. Only then, CSTE’s Co-Director Robert Stern noted, can researchers evaluate ways to avoid the brain damage or reverse it. Groups are using brain imaging to compare young athletes and NFL veterans to control groups, for example. Others are looking at spinal fluid for proteins or other biomarkers that might reflect the onset or progress of CTE.