The murder-suicide of Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher last week came just days before a team of researchers announced that 34 of the 35 brains of former NFL players donated for a special study were found to have Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease caused by repeated hits to the head. It is unknown at this point if Belcher suffered from CTE, but his behavior suggests he may have suffered from the disease.
The study, conducted by researchers at Boston University’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, is the largest case series study of CTE to date. It involved 85 brains that had been donated by the families of deceased veterans and athletes who had histories of repeated head trauma. Among the 85 brains, 68 were found to have CTE. Thirty-four were NFL football players, nine played college football, and six were high school football players.
The disease has been blamed for depression and bizarre behavior such as that of former Pittsburgh Steelers player Terry Long, who committed suicide by drinking antifreeze. Other NFL players who killed themselves and were later found to have CTE include Andre Waters, Junior Seau, and Dave Duerson.
For the study, researchers divided CTE into four stages. The first stage begins with headaches, and the final stage involves “full-blown dementia.” Those with the condition become increasingly sicker as the brain tissue degenerates and an abnormal protein called tao builds up in the brain.
Unfortunately, there is no way to test someone for the condition while they are still alive. The only way to tell is by testing brains after the person has died.
The condition has been found in hockey players, wrestlers and boxers, and has raised the question of safety of rigorous sports especially on young athletes. Many states have passed laws that do not allow an athlete who has suffered even a minor head injury to return to activity until he has been cleared by a doctor.