According to the LA Times this morning, Seau’s family has decided to allow researchers to study his brain to see if there is any evidence of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) , which is a progressive degenerative disease of the brain found in athletes (and others) with a history of repetitive brain trauma (such as repeated concussions).
The suicide Wednesday of former Patriots linebacker Junior Seau has raised an important concern for parents with children involved in contact sports: Did repeat concussions through years of throwing himself into tackles lead to the depression that may have ultimately caused him to take his own life?
While it’s easy to connect the dots, experts say more research is needed to determine the extent to which concussions lead to permanent brain injuries that then cause mental disorders down the road.
Previously, Seau’s family told reporters that they were “shocked” by the news of his death by gunshot wound and that he hadn’t experienced outward signs of depression.
Any contact sport such as football, hockey, and boxing can cause head blows that damage the brain with “a potential for lasting consequences,” said Dr. Peter Warinner, director of the Sports Neurology and Concussion Clinic at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. “Some people may be more vulnerable due to genetic reasons or the severity or frequency of their injury, but we still can’t prove a cause and effect relationship between concussions and depression, suicide, Parkinson’s, or other neurological diseases.”
While the BU Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy has a brain bank to study the effects of repeat head injuries in deceased athletes, the center declined to comment on whether it would be studying Seau’s brain, releasing a statement that it is the center’s “policy to not discuss any completed, ongoing or potential research cases unless at the specific request of family members.”
Chronic traumatic encephalopathy -- a brain disease linked to depression, cognitive defects, and in rare cases suicides -- has so far been identified in about 20 retired athletes who have donated their brains to science.
Seau’s death follows the recent high-profile suicides of two former NFL defensive backs: former Atlanta Falcon Ray Easterling, who launched a lawsuit against the NFL for mismanaging players’ concussions, and former Chicago Bear Dave Duerson, who left a suicide note last year saying he wanted to donate his brain to the “NFL’s brain bank” -- describing his fading vision and pain in the “left side of his brain.”
Madeline Uretsky told me she’s all too familiar with the damaging toll that concussions can take on the brain. The 16-year-old from North Reading suffered a pounding blow to the head after she tripped while playing soccer for her high school team last October. It was her second concussion in less than a year and one that left her with blinding headaches, chronic dizziness, memory loss, and ringing in her ears.
She can go to school for only two hours a day and can’t stand to be around loud noises such as a crying baby in a supermarket.
“I used to have 160 short sharp headaches [a day] and now I get 55 or less, so that’s a big improvement,” Uretsky said. “I’ve dealt with fact that I can’t play contact sports any more, like soccer and hockey, but I’d like to eventually return to track -- and a full day of school.”
Madeline recently met with Senator Scott Brown to discuss how to get schools to make more adaptations to students recovering from concussions.
“My daughter has been given the most incredible accommodations,” said Madeline’s mother, Jami Uretsky. “She goes to the school nurse whenever she needs to and lies down with the shades shut, and the school is allowing her to do most of her work at home and aren’t holding her back a grade.”
But, she added, she’s connected with other parents on a Concussion Mom Facebook page she started who haven’t gotten the same accommodations for their children in schools both in and out of state.
While doctors can’t predict how long Madeline will take to make a full recovery, her mother said she’s spoken to many people with severe concussions who tell her they’ve felt back to themselves in two years. “There are others who I guess never do, but I don’t like to think about that.”
Still, she doesn’t regret letting her kids play in contact sports and continues to allow her son to play hockey. She also urged a friend -- concerned for her football-playing son after hearing about Junior Seau’s death -- to continue to allow her son to play.
“We only hear about football players who get long-lasting brain injuries,” Jami said. “What about all of those who play the sport and are fine years later?”
Deborah Kotz can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @debkotz2.