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Greg Webb
Greg Webb
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NFL Players’ Brains Show Long-Term Damage from Concussions in Study

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Concussions damage the brain more than previously thought, and can lead to a lifetime of headaches and depression. The Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy (CSTE) has used tissue from retired NFL athletes’ brains, culled posthumously, to research the effects of concussions. Prior to their research, the most information known about the injury was that it is a jarring blow to the head that temporarily stunned the senses, occasionally leading to unconsciousness. It has been an invisible injury, sometimes impossible to test by MRIs or CAT scans.

The CSTE found that the brain damage caused by concussions, called chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), was extensive in five out of five brains of former NFL players it has studied. "It’s throughout the brain, not just on the superficial aspects of the brain, but deep inside," said Dr. Ann McKee, a neuropathologist at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Massachusetts and co-director of the CSTE. The CSTE is set to release results of a study of a sixth NFL player Tuesday afternoon.

Studies reveal brown tangles flecked throughout the brain tissue of former NFL players who died young, some in their 30s and 40s. The tangles closely resemble what might be found in the brain of an 80-year-old with dementia, said Dr. McKee. The damage affects the parts of the brain that control emotion, rage, hyper sexuality, and even breathing, and recent studies are showing that CTE is a progressive disease that eventually kills brain cells.

Chris Nowinski, a Harvard football player and a professional wrestler with World Wrestling Entertainment, founded the Sports Legacy Institute with Dr. Robert Cantu after a concussion ended his career. "I had depression. I had memory problems. My head hurt for five years," he said. Doctors weren’t giving him answers, so he founded the Institute which solicits the brains of ex-athletes who suffered multiple concussions for study by the CSTE.

The CSTE, and other researchers, have identified CTE in the brains of NFL football players John Grimsley, Mike Webster, Andre Waters, Justin Strzelczyk and Terry Long. Three of these athletes died after suffering from depression, and one committed suicide.

Ted Johnson, a retired NFL linebacker with three Super Bowl rings earned with the New England Patriots, suffered over 100 concussions throughout his career. He believes those concussions caused his problems with anger, depression, and throbbing headaches, and criticizes the NFL for not better protecting players.

The NFL indicated in a statement that its staff takes a cautious approach to managing concussions, and that "hundreds of thousands of people" have played sports without experiencing problems. It also stated that there "continues to be considerable debate within the medical community on the precise long-term effects of concussions and how they relate to other risk factors." The NFL plans on performing its own medical study of retired NFL players on the long-term effects of concussions.

The information gleaned so far by the CSTE confirms what I and my law partners have seen numerous times with clients who have suffered traumatic brain injuries in automobile accidents and crashes, and other types of accidents. We often represent people who have suffered traumatic brain injuries, frequenatly diagnosed as a "concussion" or "post concussive syndrome", who have often suffered from long and continuous symptoms and problems, including memory loss, confusion, headaches, and personality changes such as being more easily irritated or angered, to name a few. Many times, these latter symptoms will be attributed to other, unrelated, "emotional" problems by treating health care providers – and the defense lawyers. Most of the time, our client will appear normal, and can carry on a social conversation with little or no problem, so it is sometimes difficult for an outsider to see a real problem. That is why these injuries are often called "invisible" – – except to the person to whom it has occurred, or to those close enough to observe the person daily. I hope these studies, and others to come, will help those who labor daily with brain injuries, including NFL players who truly put their lives on the line and risk permanent injury every time they step onto the field.