Brain Condition Raises Concussion Concerns

By Les Carpenter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 28, 2009

TAMPA, Jan. 27 -- Doctors who have been studying the long-term effects of concussions on football players have discovered another case of a player suffering from a brain condition that could lead to dementia or Alzheimer's.

Recent studies of the brain tissue of former Tampa Bay Buccaneers player Tom McHale showed he had chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative brain disease caused by head trauma most often associated with a condition that plagues former boxers called punch-drunk syndrome.

McHale, who died at age 45 eight months ago of a drug overdose, is the sixth player to show signs of CTE.

Doctors at Boston University's Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, who examined McHale's brain, said he is the sixth out of six former players whose brains have been examined and shown to have CTE (although that of a seventh, former Denver Bronco Damien Nash, showed no signs of the condition).

Several doctors and researchers have been saying for more than two years that repeated blows to the head in football games lead to debilitating later-life afflictions such as dementia. They said the fact that six out of seven players have shown signs of CTE is definitive evidence that something is wrong.

"Is this something that happened by chance?" asked Ann McKee, a neuropathologist at Boston University pointing to pictures of McHale's brain that she said resembled that of a 72-year-old boxer. "I can tell you I've been looking at brains for 22 years, and this is not a normal part of aging. This is not a normal part of the brain."

The problem doctors have in studying CTE in football players is that the link was made just a few years ago, and the only way to test for it is to study an actual piece of brain tissue, meaning the subject must be deceased before he can be tested. This is why only seven former players have been examined.

The center also announced it has tested an 18-year-old high school football player who had suffered many concussions and who recently died. The test showed the boy also had CTE.

"This is something you should never see in an 18-year-old's brain," McKee said.

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