Repeated brain injuries is a big topic of concern for organized sports right now. While the NFL gets the spotlight for denying the seriousness of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, reports are coming out detailing the dangers of bouncing a ball of your head repeatedly, or playing an intense close-contact sport.
Earlier this month chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the degenerative brain disease brought on by repeated concussions, was identified for the first time in both a soccer and a rugby player, as reported in a review in the journal Acta Neuropathologica.
CTE can only be identified in autopsies after death. It is diagnosed via displays of an an abnormal build-up of tau proteins which have been associated with mental issues such as Alzheimer’s disease. It is known to damage or destroy neural pathways controlling things like memory, judgement, and behavioral control.
Dr. Ann McKee, a neuropathologist who has examined many of the brains already found to have CTE, said the brain of the soccer player, Patrick Grange, showed diffuse disease.
“There was very severe degeneration of the frontal lobes with widespread tau pathology in the frontal, temporal and parietal lobes,” McKee, director of neuropathology at the Bedford VA Medical Center, told CNN in an email. “He is one of the youngest players to have shown this much disease.”
Grange played for the Chicago Fire Reserve MLS team, as well as the Albuquerque Asylum semi-pro team. He died in 2012 at the young age of 29, after being diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, better known as ALS. ALS is a rare and incurable neurodegenerative disease, yet 13 percent of the 103 CTE cases identified by McKee and her colleagues showed evidence of progressive motor neuron disease, on-top of the damage associated with CTE.
“(Grange) had no known genetic predisposition for ALS,” said McKee, professor of neurology and pathology at the Boston University School of Medicine. “And no family members have been diagnosed with ALS.”
Grange’s diagnosis is especially relevant to soccer as other studies are beginning to question the safety of heading the ball.
“The fact that Patrick Grange was a prolific header is important,” Chris Nowinski, co-founder and executive director of the Sports Legacy Institute, said in an e-mail. “We need a larger discussion around at what age we introduce headers, and how we set limits to exposure once it is introduced.”
Heading has long been thought to be relatively harmless, but evidence is growing to show that repeatedly hitting your head even comparitively softly can have repercussions. The damage seems to add up, and headers are beginning to be associated with microstructural damage to brain tissue and memory problems. An Italian study also linked them to ALS.
Astralian Rugby Union player Barry “Tizza” Taylor died in 2013 from complications of severe CTE with dementia at age 77. Taylor played for 19 years in amateur and senior leagues before retiring to become a coach. Yet, his story is sadly familiar.
“Cognitive problems, memory loss, attention difficulties and executive dysfunction were first noted in his mid-50s, followed by depression and anxiety, worsening explosivity and impulsivity,” the statement said. By his mid-60s, the statement said, Taylor was “physically and verbally abusive” and “paranoid.”
It seems few contact sports are safe from the dangers of repeated brain injuries. Moving forward we will have to seriously rethink many of the behaviors that have been longstanding traditions in sports like heading the soccer ball, and we will have to make hard decisions to keep the sports safe to play.