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Football Player Donates Brain to Research

In a series of articles, The New York Times has been telling the story of Dave Duerson, a 50-year-old former Chicago Bear and father of four who killed himself earlier this month. Duerson’s final wish, expressed in his suicide note and in a voicemail message to his ex-wife, was that his brain would be given to the National Football League’s (NFL) brain bank.

Duerson’s death, and his final gift, will likely expand the national conversation about the effects of repeated concussion on football players’ brains…and what should be done to protect athletes of all ages.

The “brain bank” is the nickname of the Boston University Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy (CSTE). The CSTE was created in 2008 as a collaborative venture between Boston University School of Medicine and Sports Legacy Institute (SLI). Its is to conduct state-of-the-art research on chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE)—a form of progressive dementia—through the study of neuropathology, pathogenesis, clinical presentation, disease course, genetic and environmental risk factors and prevention. It’s research is done on donated brain and spinal cord tissue, with the hope that scientists can develop tests for diagnosing CTE in living people, and treatments for people who show signs of disease.

When Duerson took his own life, he shot himself in the chest, not the head, so that his brain could be donated intact.

According to The New York Times:

Players who began their careers knowing the likely costs to their knees and shoulders are only now learning about the cognitive risks, too. After years of denying or discrediting evidence of football’s impact on the brain — from C.T.E. in deceased players to an increasing number of retirees found to have dementia or other memory-related disease — the N.F.L. has spent the last year addressing the issue, mostly through changes in concussion management and playing rules.

Duerson was active in helping ex-footballers with disability. He served on a panel that helped administer the NFL’s disability plan and the 88 Plan, a care fund for families of players with dementia. There is no doubt that Duerson knew of the link between repeated head injury and dementia and neurologic disability…and it is likely that he believed he suffered from CTE. Friends say he had memory problems, and sometimes had a difficult time thinking of or writing the correct words.

Again, from The New York Times:

Duerson sent text messages to his family before he shot himself specifically requesting that his brain be examined for damage, two people aware of the messages said. Another person close to Duerson, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that Duerson had commented to him in recent months that he might have C.T.E., an incurable disease linked to depression, impaired impulse control and cognitive decline.

It will be awhile before we know whether Duerson suffered from CTE, or if he was suffering from depression without brain damage. Regardless of the outcome of the autopsy, Duerson’s death puts new focus on the effects of football on brain health and brain function. Pro athletes play under great risk, but some say the greatest risk is reserved for youth athletes, whose still-developing brains may suffer bigger consequences from smaller hits.

The conversation about how to prevent brain damage in athletes of all ages will be difficult. Fans love the raw aggression of the game, and those with money at stake may balk at taking the danger out of the game for fear of losing viewers and revenue. Will we see new safety equipment? New helmet designs? A change in the rules? This should be an interesting year for parents, coaches, football players, and the N.F.L.

Our hope is that Dave Duerson’s tragic death has meaning, that safety becomes the paramount concern, and that this is the last time a football player dies as the result—directly or indirectly— of what really is just a game.

Resources

Links for the two articles from The New York Times:

N.F.L. Players Shaken by Duerson’s Suicide Message (February 20, 2011)

A Suicide, a Last Request, a Family’s Questions (February 22, 2011)

To learn more about brain injury, check out the HensonFuerst website: https://www.hensonfuerst.com/

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