CTE Found In Brains Of Former NFL Players

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A study published on July 25, 2015 in the Journal of the American Medical Association, JAMA has found that CTE, or chronic traumatic encephalopathy, in 99% of deceased NFL players' brains that were donated to scientific research. CTE is an effect of experiencing numerous traumatic brain injuries (TBI), and although the average person is more like to suffer a TBI from an auto accident, TBI's can occur while engaging in sports. In fact, all of the brains in the study were required to have football as their primary exposure to head trauma. The research subjects must have had to experience repetitive head trauma in their lifetimes, but may or may not have exhibited CTE symptoms during their lives. 

What Is Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy?

To explain it more clearly, CTE is pathologically characterized by a buildup of abnormal tau protein in the brain that can disable neuropathways and may lead to a variety of clinical symptoms, such as memory loss, confusion, impaired judgment, aggression, depression, anxiety, impulse control issues, and sometimes even suicidal behavior. CTE is found in individuals that have experienced repeated head trauma, and most cases were diagnosed in veterans and people who played contact sports like American football. The only formal diagnosis of this degenerative brain disease is through an autopsy, meaning that we can't knows if someone has CTE, for sure, until after they die. 

The study acknowledges potential bias because relatives of the players may have submitted their brains after noticing clinical symptoms while they were living. It also points out the lack of a comparison group to represent all individuals exposed to college-level or professional football. Without that, the study is unable to provide an overall estimate on the risk of playing football and its effects on the brain. 

CNN reports, "Out of 202 deceased former football players total--a combination of high school, college, and professional players--CTE was neuropathologically diagnosed in 177. The disease was identified in 110 out of 111 former NFL players. It was also found in three of the 14 high school players and 48 of the 53 college players."

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The NFL told CNN, "The medical and scientific communities will benefit from this publication, and the NFL will continue to work with a wide range of experts to improve the health of current and former NFL athletes...there are still many unanswered questions relating to the cause, incidence, and prevalence of long-term effects of head trauma such as CTE." 

The study looked at both the brain pathology, which is the behavior of the disease in the brain, and the clinical history of each participant. It identified four stages of pathological CTE severity among the brains, based on amounts of tau buildup and distribution. Stages one and two are classified as mild and stages three and four are severe. 

CNN summarized, "Individuals who were reported to have experienced more behavioral mood symptoms during their lifetime were more likely to have findings indicative of mild disease as opposed to severe. These symptoms occurred in 96% of mild cases and 89% of severe cases. People with a mild buildup and distribution of tau were also more likely to have died by suicide. Those with a severe buildup, on the other hand, were more likely to have experienced cognitive symptoms, such as memory loss." 

One of the biggest problems is a lack of encouragement for players to seek treatment. Stereotypes about mental health treatment and studies that emphasize problems stemming from brain trauma, without fully explaining the science behind it, may give athletes the idea that they can't do anything to help themselves. Although CTE can currently only be diagnosed after death, many symptoms of the disease that occur in someone's lifetime, like depression and anxiety, are treatable. It is important for someone experiencing symptoms from a traumatic brain injury to receive an evaluation from a neurologist and work with them to create a treatment plan. 

Dr. Jeffrey Kutcher, national director of the Sports Neurology Clinic at the Core Institute, who was not involved in the study, said, "My rule as a physician, as a neurologist, is to protect and promote the brain health of my patients over the course of a lifetime, no question about that. You have to look at the total person though. You have to understand why people play sports. It's an individual decision, everybody gets different things out of it. You also have to understand what the arc of their life is going to be, what their health is going to be at the end of their career." 

Kutcher mentions that most of the brains in the study came from players that were on the field decades ago, from the 1950s to the 1990s, with the rest having played more recently. There were not the same brain injury awareness, medical protocols, or equipment back then as there is today. 

Dr. Ann McKee, director of Boston University's CTE center, and a coauthor of the study, are currently conducting more research on CTE and its effects. They are examining lengths of exposure to head trauma, the age of first exposure, the lengths of playing careers, and how these relate to the risk of CTE and its pathological severity. They are also using the 177 donated brains with CTE to discover if there are any genetic risk factors of the disease.

"It certainly can be prevented," McKee said, "'That's why we really need to understand how much exposure to head trauma and what type of head trauma the body can sustain before it gets into this irreversible cascade of events." 

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Additionally, in a statement commenting on the study, the league said, "The NFL is committed to supporting scientific research into CTE and advancing progress in the prevention and treatment of head injuries. In 2016, the NFL pledged $100 million in support for independent medical research and engineering advancements in neuroscience related topics. This is in addition to the $100 million that the NFL and its partners are already spending on medical and neuroscience research."

The Michigan Law Firm, PLLC Blog previously discussed that the NFL settled a class action with ex-football players who had suffered from brain injuries, potentially paying out $4 million, to those who suffered from CTE.


The start of fall means that football season is here, and football season means cleats on turf and helmets against helmets. As spirited at American become during this time of year, it's important to remember that repetitive head trauma caused by playing football may lead to CTE or other brain injuries. It should also be noted that traumatic brain injuries can be caused by experiencing a blow to the head in a motor vehicle accident. If you or someone you know has experienced a traumatic brain injury from a car crash, contact The Michigan Law Firm, PLLC at 844.4MI.FIRM for a free legal consultation. Let us take care of your legal trouble while you focus on improving your health.

NFL Settled A Concussion Class Action Lawsuit

Research has drawn links between football players receiving multiple blows to the head and numerous degenerative brain diseases. Due to this research, a class action lawsuit was filed in by thousands of retired professional football players against the NFL, for hiding the risk of brain injuries that comes with playing in the league. An increasing number of NFL players are affected by the league's choice to not disclose the health risks of concussions and repeated blows to the head that come with playing on the professional level. CNN Money stated that the Supreme Court sided with the players, deciding in December, 2016 to not hear an appeal of the case. Any of the men who are found to be eligible for the settlement payments must have retired before July 7, 2014, and may be awarded up to $5 million each. Settlement amounts are based on the number of years played in the NFL, the severity of the player's brain disease, and age. Over 11,000 retired football players expect to receive their portion of the lawsuit settlement this year.

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The New York Times reported that two of these claims were recently settled on June 16, 2017 for a combined total of $9 million. Although the two claimants have gone unnamed, one NFL player's wife, Marlene Breasley, spoke of her husband, Terry Breasley, 66, who played for three years under the San Francisco 49ers. Marlene told CNN Money how beneficial the settlement money would be for her family if they are found to be eligible. Due to his years of playing football, Beasley continues to experience the effects of more than 40 concussions from his playing years, and is currently on more than 10 medications. His illness keeps him confined to his bed as he suffers from chronic headaches and short seizures all day. 

"He has trouble speaking. Terry gets injections for the pain, but it never goes away. He sleeps for a couple hours when he can until the pain gets so bad that it wakes him up," Marlene said.  "It's [the settlement money] going to help us buy the medicines he needs, get the physical help he needs from remodeling our house to make it handicap accessible to having someone with him 24 hours a day." 

It’s unfortunate that Beasley and so many other men are suffering from brain injuries caused by playing the sport they love, because according to the Brain Injury Society (BIS), sports are a relatively uncommon source of traumatic brain injury (TBI) among the general population. In fact, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that falls are the number one source of TBIs for the non-professional football playing population of America. The second most common cause for TBIs is unintentional blunt trauma followed by motor vehicle accidents. Still, TBIs are a major cause of death and disability in the US and contribute to 30% of all injury deaths. 

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People who are diagnosed with a TBI can suffer from a lifetime of effects, such as impaired memory, thinking, movement, sensation, and/or emotional function. Men and people ages 65 and up are more likely to suffer from TBIs than other members of the population, possibly explaining why NFL players are increasingly discovering the consequences of getting paid to hit their bodies against each other. According to CNN Money, there are a few types of degenerative brain diseases that also may be caused by a traumatic brain injury, that also affect how much money each ex-NFL player may be entitled to.

Degenerative Brain Diseases Caused By Traumatic Brain Injury

Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE)

 According to the Concussion Legacy Foundation, CTE is a degenerative brain disease in which "a protein called Tau forms clumps that slowly spread throughout the brain, killing brain cells." The unfortunate thing about this disease is that it can only be detected by autopsy, after a person's death. However, "early symptoms of CTE usually appear in a patient's late 20s or 30s, and affect a patient's mood and behavior. Some common changes seen include impulse control problems, aggression, depression, and paranoia." Relatives of NFL players who lost their loved ones to CTE may receive $4 million dollars from the NFL brain injury class action lawsuit settlement.

Alzheimer's and Dementia

According to the Alzheimer's Association, Alzheimer's leads to nerve cell death and tissue loss within the brain. This causes the brain to shrink dramatically and affects all of its functions. NFL players who have been diagnosed with Alzheimer's may be awarded $3.5 million.

The Alzheimer's Association explains dementia as a general term used to describe a severe decline in mental ability that can effect everyday life. Doctors have a hard time determining the extent of a patient's dementia because it affects every person's brain differently. Players diagnosed with moderate dementia might be awarded $3 million in this settlement while players with early dementia may be awarded around $1.5 million.

Lou Gehrig's Disease/Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS)

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The ALS Association explains that ALS is "a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord. A-myo-trophic comes from the Greek language. "A" means no. "Myo" refers to muscle, and "Trophic" means nourishment – "No muscle nourishment." When a muscle has no nourishment, it "atrophies" or wastes away. "Lateral" identifies the areas in a person's spinal cord where portions of the nerve cells that signal and control the muscles are located. As this area degenerates, it leads to scarring or hardening ("sclerosis") in the region."

Though people know about ALS because it was the disease that caused Lou Gehrig to leave his successful baseball career, the degenerative brain disease was still unknown to many in our current generation. However, many people recently became educated on the disease due to very popular, social media "Ice Bucket Challenge," which raised millions of dollars for treatment. 

Due to the severity of ALS and the fact that it doesn't have a cure, players who have been diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's disease may receive up to $5 million dollars in compensation from the NFL.  

Parkinson’s Disease (PD)

Parkinson's Disease, according to the Parkinson's Disease Foundation, is "a chronic and progressive movement disorder, meaning that its symptoms continue and worsen over time." "Parkinson’s involves the malfunction and death of vital nerve cells in the brain, called neurons. Parkinson's primarily affects neurons in an area of the brain called the substantia nigra. Some of these dying neurons produce dopamine, a chemical that sends messages to the part of the brain that controls movement and coordination. As PD progresses, the amount of dopamine produced in the brain decreases, leaving a person unable to control movement normally." The cause of Parkinson's is currently unknown and there is no cure as of yet. Retired NFL players diagnosed with Parkinson's may receive $3.5 million from the settlement.

Traumatic Brain Injury Symptoms

The CDC lists the following as symptoms for TBIs that people who have sustained a head injury should keep an eye out for. The symptoms typically fall into four categories.

Emotional/Mood

  • Irritability
  • Sadness
  • More emotional
  • Nervousness or anxiety 

Sleep

  • Sleeping more than usual
  • Sleep less than usual
  • Trouble falling asleep

 

Thinking/Remembering

  • Difficulty thinking clearly
  • Feeling slowed down
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Difficulty remembering new information

Physical

  • Headache
  • Fuzzy or blurry vision
  • Nausea or vomiting (early on)
  • Dizziness
  • Sensitivity to noise or light
  • Balance problems
  • Feeling tired, having no energy
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While the families of these brain damaged football players might feel relieved that the compensation from the lawsuit might help them cover some medical bills, it is clear that they are more upset with the larger problem. That problem is that brain damage and brain diseases alter a person, sometimes indefinitely, and that these families aren't able to spend the same quality time with their loved ones that they used to. Some ex-NFL players are tied up in dealing with the stresses of medical appointments and medical bills instead of enjoying retirement.

While it's every child's (and some adults') dream to become a sports legend, most professional sports careers don't work out. People are more likely to sustain a head injury in a motor vehicle accident than in a Detroit Lions game! As such, anytime a person is involved in a car accident, or any time someone takes a blow to the head, it is important that they should immediately seek medical attention to rule out a traumatic brain injury.


Traumatic Brain Injuries are serious health issues that should not be ignored or taken lightly. Whether the brain injury was acquired through playing sports, a car accident, or by slip and fall, it is a good idea to err on the side of caution and seek immediate medical attention after taking a hit to the head. As the article shows, experiencing a TBI could cause long-term if not life-altering afflictions and problems for victims. If you or someone you know has been diagnosed with a TBI after an auto accident, call The Michigan Law Firm, PLLC at 844.4MI.FIRM for a free consultation with a personal injury lawyer today.