What Is CTE?: The Facts

June 29, 2010 § Leave a comment

So stop whatever you’re doing and go read this piece on Chris Henry and his pre-death chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). The author, Adam Jacobi, is absolutely right, it’s ” just about the worst news possible for the sport of football.”

It becomes really easy with jargon or rhetoric to glaze over what some symptom or disease really is. Before long, we all forget that when we say “ALS” we are referring to a disease that renders you a mere spectator to your own decay, where your muscles become unresponsive unto the point of atrophy. And all of that happens while most-often mental function remains untouched. Fewer things strike me as being close to a living hell as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, but even I lose some of that fear when I hear “ALS”.

So, in what is probably a vain effort, allow me to be painfully explicit about what exactly chronic traumatic encephalopathy is, to list out what it is and what it does to the body. It won’t be easy to keep thinking about this every time a Sportscenter anchor says “CTE”, just as it isn’t easy to remember that a true “WMD” is a terrifying tool of violence. But, to the players that we all have so pushed into the arena, we owe nothing less.

Let’s start with this photo:

1. First things first: those brown scratches? Dead brain-cell connections. More specifically, neuritic threads, the links between brain cells. Your eyes aren’t deceiving you, there appear to be countless numbers of these small dead cell parts in Chris Henry’s brain, in comparison to the pristine quality of the average brain above it.

2. The bigger dark spots in Henry’s brain? Those are Tau protein tangles. Tau proteins (and I’ll be the first to admit the analogy isn’t perfect), roughly put, are like ropes that keep lines of people moving. Tau proteins, in proper use, stabilize connections in the cell’s microtubules. At some point, however, Tau proteins can begin to create tangled tubes and filaments, which scientist think is the first step towards tauopathic diseases like Alzheimer’s and CTE. It isn’t quite certain how the violence a brain undergoes during football causes the hyperphosphorylation of Tau proteins to cause the tangles, but the correlation is strong. Again, note the difference between the two slides: the normal brain has clean cellular boundaries while you can see the stained tangles in Henry’s brain. And also again, this is a man who is 26 years old and has never had a known concussion.

3. CTE has been around quite a while under another name: pugilistic dementia. You know, the disease that rendered Muhammad Ali, one of the most eloquent athletes in history into a pottering near-mute and handicapped man? Setting aside the pains and non-brain injuries of a Gale Sayers, for every Larry Holmes or Ali or Quarry brother in boxing history, I’d say that you could conservatively put 2-4 retired NFL players in equally poor conditions. [UPDATE: Apparently most doctors put roughly 15-20% of all boxers suffer from pugilistic dementia, which if we halved (just to be super conservative) would put the same levels in the NFL at 127 to 170 players from just one season]

4. Other problems caused by the traumatic encephalopathy include:

  • frontotemporal dementia – no known cure, average survival is 7 years
  • progressive supranuclear palsy – no known cure, average survival is 7 years. This was the disease actor Dudley Moore contracted.
  • corticobasal degeneration – no known cure, average survival is 8 years
  • Pick’s disease – no known cure

5. Previous to Chris Henry, concussions were thought to be the cause. Now, all that is apparently required to bring about premature brain decay is the standard levels of violence that are faced by every player from high school on up.

Another commonality with those diseases I mention above in #4? The earliest one typically gets any of those is late 40’s early 50’s, and most commonly these are diseases that afflict people in their 60’s. Chris Henry was 26.

Furthermore, they all have symptoms in common, namely dementia and depression. Henry’s rumored last words were “if you take off, I’m going to jump off the truck and kill myself.”

Chris Benoit, the pro wrestler who killed his wife and 7 year old son before killing himself, had according to doctors “[a] brain [that]was so severely damaged it resembled the brain of an 85-year-old Alzheimer’s patient.” Benoit was 40 years old. He had CTE.

I’m not crazy about everything Bill Simmons writes, but he was channeling some truth when in his review of The Wrestler he wrote:

Of course, The Wrestler resonates for a more sinister reason, too. Pro wrestling chews up and spits out its athletes with grueling schedules, brutal physical punishment and a tacit understanding that performance enhancers are okay—as are greenies, sleeping pills and painkillers. These guys destroy their bodies, then their hearts give out and they die. Google the phrase “dead wrestlers,” and your computer will start to smoke like an overtaxed car engine.

The mainstream media don’t care because the general public doesn’t care. After all, it’s a fake sport with scripted endings. Why should it matter to us when wrestlers are found dead in their beds or seen limping around on two fake hips? Why should it matter to us that there’s a list of modern wrestlers who died before the age of 50—many of them famous—and that the list is more than 70 names long? Hey, there’s always another wave of guys on the way. Always. They’ll do whatever it takes to get ahead, just like the last generation did.

The ghosts of Mike Webster, Andre Waters, Chris Henry, Terry Long are out there. But who needs to remember them when we have Ray Lewis and Hines Ward and Patrick Willis to entertain us today?

I’ll be honest: this report, these findings, they suck. It sucks that I’ve probably forever lost my ability to cheer wildly for my Michigan Wolverines, that I’m always going to beat myself up for letting out a “Wooooo!” and high-fiving friends when a wide receiver got laid out across the middle. Even in the past two years, the number of times I’ve rhapsodized about Eric Berry when it’s pretty easy to see that he’s functionally killing himself for my entertainment is damn embarrassing.

I wish to hell that I’d never learned these things, but I wish even more that we had known these facts decades ago. Maybe we could have saved a life, which is worth way more than any fan’s pleasure.


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