A small study has linked multiple blows to the head, sustained during athletic competition, to a degenerative brain condition similar to Lou Gehrig’s disease.
In the study, Bob Cantu, a neurosurgeon at Boston University Medical Center and colleagues examined brain and spinal cord tissue from a dozen former athletes that had died. Three of them had been diagnosed with ALS before their deaths.
Each athlete had sustained multiple concussions. One of them had at least 10 concussions. The subjects were found to have protein deposits known as tau and TDP-43 in their brains and spinal cords. These proteins have previously been found in the brains, but not the spinal cords of patients with ALS.
The fact that similar proteins were found, but in a different distribution from “classic” ALS suggests that the neurodegenerative disorder associated with multiple head trauma is similar to, but distinct from the classic disease.
Repetitive head injuries include both full-blown concussions and less severe blows to the head, said Robert Stern, in an interview with the Wall Street Journal. The study co-author added that “concussions are really the tip of the iceberg.”
This doesn’t mean children shouldn’t participate in contact sports, cautioned Gerard Gioia, chief of pediatric neuropsychology at Children’s National Medical Center. “The benefits of kids’ activities in sports, in recreation, in physical exercise far outweigh the risks,” Gioia told the Journal. “But that doesn’t mean we ignore the risk.”
Previous studies have suggested that repetitive head trauma increases the risk of other degenerative brain disorders including Parkinson’s disease (think about Muhammad Ali) and Alzheimer’s disease.
The write-up appears in the Journal of Neuropathology and Experimental Neurology,