Posted on January 10, 2013 · Posted in Brain Injury

Seau with Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy

I’d like to say that this news is a surprise, but of course it isn’t.

Brain specialists have determined that former NFL linebacker Junior Seau, who committed suicide in May, had the degenerative brain disease that’s been discovered in literally dozens of deceased players — including several who took their own lives.

Seau’s widow Gina and his 23-year-old son Tyler in an interview with ESPN and ABC News announced that Seau’s brain, according to five specialists consulted by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), had evidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). That disease, believed to be caused by repeated blows to the head, causes memory loss, mood swings and depression.

According to ESPN, Gina wanted to go public with the fact that Junior had CTE, and she pleaded for steps to be taken to help other NFL players. She said that doctors told her that Junior developed CTE because of “a lot of head-to-head collisions over the course of 20 years of playing in the NFL.”

Junior lived in San Diego and had played for the San Diego Chargers, and when he died by shooting himself in the chest the community and NFL were shocked. Just hours after he died, researchers were calling Junior’s family, seeking to examine his brain.

The family picked the NIH to study it. The league, which is being sued by several thousand ex-players over the concussion issue, put out a statement Thursday about the Junior’s diagnosis.

“We appreciate the Seau family’s cooperation with the National Institutes of Health,” the NFL said. “The finding underscores the recognized need for additional research to accelerate a fuller understanding of CTE. The NFL, both directly and in partnership with the NIH, Centers for Disease Control and other leading organizations, is committed to supporting a wide range of independent medical and scientific research that will both address CTE and promote the long-term health and safety of athletes at all levels.”

The statement continued, “The NFL clubs have already committed a $30 million research grant to the NIH, and we look forward to making decisions soon with the NFL Players Association on the investment of $100 million for medical research that is committed in the Collective Bargaining Agreement. We have work to do, and we’re doing it.”

The  National Football League Players Association, the union, also issued a statement Thursday on Junior’s diagnosis.

“Junior Seau was a leader on and off the field and the player community continues to mourn his loss. The report today about Junior having chronic traumatic encephalopathy is tragic. We know that research and partnerships will be an important factor in improving player care and safety, which is why we set aside $100 million of player funds for medical research during the term of this collective bargaining agreement.

We also know that accountability and credibility are equally important measures in the overall commitment to player safety. The only way we can improve the safety of players, restore the confidence of our fans and secure the future of our game is to insist on the same quality of medical care, informed consent and ethical standards that we expect for ourselves and for our family members. This is why the players have asked for things like independent sideline concussion experts, the certification and credentialing of all professional football medical staff and a fairer workers compensation system in professional football.

Given their keen interest in Health and Safety issues in football, we call on Congressman Cummings, Congressman Issa and the Congressional Committee on Oversight and Government Reform to review this issue as well.

Our players deserve the best care, and we will fight to hold the NFL and the Clubs accountable for providing it.”

Junior’s widow and son both described to ESPN how his personality had changed — how he suffered from insomnia, became uncommunicative, was depressed and had angry outbursts — shortly before his death. That all jibes with what the NIH said about its study of his brain.

“On initial examination the brain looked normal but under the microscope, with the use of special staining techniques, abnormalities were found that are consistent with a form of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE),” the NIH said in a statement.

” The neuropathologists each examined tissue samples from three different unidentified brains. The official, unanimous diagnosis of Mr. Seau’s brain was a ‘multi-focal tauopathy consistent with a diagnosis of chronic traumatic encephalopathy.’ In addition there was a very small region in the left frontal lobe of the brain with evidence of scarring that is consistent with a small, old, traumatic brain injury.

Specifically, the neuropathologists found abnormal, small clusters called neurofibrillary tangles of a protein known as tau within multiple regions of Mr. Seau’s brain. Tau is a normal brain protein that folds into tangled masses in the brain cells of patients with Alzheimer’s disease and a number of other progressive neurological disorders. The regional brain distribution of the tau tangles observed in this case is unique to CTE and distinguishes it from other brain disorders.

The type of findings seen in Mr. Seau’s brain have been recently reported in autopsies of individuals with exposure to repetitive head injury, including professional and amateur athletes who played contact sports, individuals with multiple concussions, and veterans exposed to blast injury and other trauma.

CTE was first described in studies of boxers who developed dementia and Parkinson’s disease-like symptoms. The signature sign of this progressive degenerative brain disorder included tangles of tau inside brain cells as well as extensive cell death and shrinkage of the brain. More recently, some people with repetitive head injury have also been found to have a more limited, multifocal tauopathy without brain shrinkage, dementia or Parkinson-like symptoms.

In many cases friends and family described personality changes, depression, increased irritability, and trouble with attention. The relationship between the multifocal tauopathy form of CTE and the symptoms is poorly understood. Whether and how the multi-focal form of CTE progresses to the more extensive brain degeneration is still unclear.”

The really scary thing about Junior’s case is that during his career he was never diagnosed with a concussion. So one is left to ponder whether all the “little” hits he took cumulatively added up and led to him suffering from CTE, or if he’d had concussions but they just weren’t diagnosed.

RIP Junior.





About the Author

Attorney Gordon S. Johnson, Jr.
Past Chair Traumatic Brain Injury Litigation Group, American Association of Justice :: 800-992-9447