This is how a healthy brain should look, with little damaged (brown) tissue.  (Source: CSTE)

It's hard to not accept the stunning visual evidence of brain damage in the brains of former professional football players, like the one seen here. They are filled with tangles of brown tissue, tissue that was dead or dying at an early age. The damage stems from the many hard hits incurred in the game.  (Source: CSTE)
Scientists gain a glimpse at the damage done to NFL players' brains by concussions

The NFL Super Bowl is today, something eagerly awaited by millions across America.  However, for some former NFL champions, just performing their daily activities has become an equally Herculean endeavor.

The sports world is rife with phrases like "taking one for the team" or "giving your body to the game.  While most professional or even amateur athletes do indeed experience some serious injuries throughout their career, nowhere are such phrases as true as in the NFL. 

Concussions in professional football are a fact of life.  Some like Ted Johnson have as many as 100 concussions.  Mr. Johnson was a supreme athlete, terrorizing NFL defenses on the offensive line of the New England Patriots.  He won three Super Bowl rings, but was forced to retire in 2002 after a pair of bad concussions from hard hits.  Now he's lucky to just be able to get out of bed, he says.

While many retired players have similar stories to Mr. Johnson, scientists had a very poor understanding of what exactly they are suffering from.  Concussions were described by doctors as a jarring blow to the head that temporarily stunned the senses, occasionally leading to unconsciousness.  There were no CT scans or MRI tests to detect the injuries.

Now, scientists have finally gained an understanding of what concussions do the brain and just how bad the damage is.  Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy (CSTE), at the Boston University School of Medicine, using brain tissue from former NFL players collected posthumously, discovered that concussions yield incredibly high damage to the brain.  The center put a name to such injuries -- chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).

The new study heavily examined the brain of Tom McHale, who is only the sixth verified case of CTE.  Mr. McHale died in 2008 at only age of 45, after a sensational sports career that saw him play many sports in his teenage years.  According to the researchers, his brain damage began in these teenage years, with CTE damage starting to occur when he was around 18.

Dr. Ann McKee, a neuropathologist at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Bedford, Massachusetts, and co-director of the CSTE calls the discovery of damage starting at such a young age "shocking".  She states, "We think this is how chronic traumatic encephalopathy starts.  This is speculation, but I think we can assume that this would have continued to expand."

While a small sample, the CSTE has found CTE in all six brains of professional football players it has examined.  And the results are not just notable due to the repetition of the damage, but also its severity.  Dr. McKee states, "What's been surprising is that it's so extensive.  It's throughout the brain, not just on the superficial aspects of the brain, but it's deep inside."

Many former NFL players die young, passing away as early as their 30s or 40s.  According to Dr. McKee, many players at only 30 or 40 exhibit the same patchwork of dead brain tissue as an 80-year-old with Alzheimer's.  The study found the former NFL players to have brown tangles of dead or damaged cells flecked throughout the brain tissue.  Dr. McKee states, "I knew what traumatic brain disease looked like in the very end stages, in the most severe cases.  To see the kind of changes we're seeing in 45-year-olds is basically unheard of."

Among the affected parts of the brain are those responsible for controlling emotion, rage, hypersexuality, and even breathing.

The other football players who were examined in addition to McHale include John Grimsley, Mike Webster, Andre Waters, Justin Strzelczyk and Terry Long.  The NFL is not alone in brain injuries -- many in the world of boxing and professional wrestling suffer similarly injuries -- however scientists say it may be the sport in which they occur most often.  Scientists will be able to better determine just how widespread CTE is and learn more about its affects soon, as about 100 former NFL players have volunteered to donate their brains after death to the study.

The NFL released a rather defensive statement to the study, stating, "Hundreds of thousands of people have played football and other sports without experiencing any problem of this type and there continues to be considerable debate within the medical community on the precise long-term effects of concussions and how they relate to other risk factors."

However to players like former champion Ted Johnson, such words fly in the face of reality.  He states, "I'd [leave to] go see my kids for maybe 15 minutes," said Johnson. "Then I would go back home and close the curtains, turn the lights off and I'd stay in bed. That was my routine for two years.  Those were bad days.  I can definitely point to 2002 when I got back-to-back concussions. That's where the problems started -- the depression, the sleep disorders, the mental fatigue." 

"(The NFL doesn't) want you to know.  It's not like when you get into the NFL there's a handout that says 'These are the effects of multiple concussions so beware.  Really my main reason even for talking about this is to help the guys who are already retired.  [They] are getting divorced, going bankrupt, can't work, are depressed, and don't know what's wrong with them. [It is] to give them a name for it so they can go get help."

Mr. Johnson was the first of the 100 former NFL players to sign up to have his brain donated for study after his death.

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