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Brain injuries found in 110 of 111 deceased NFL players

Ben Schmitt
| Tuesday, July 25, 2017, 12:12 p.m.
Hall of Fame center Mike Webster
Hall of Fame center Mike Webster

The debilitating brain disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy, better known as CTE, was detected in 110 of 111 deceased NFL players whose brains were donated for research, according to a study published Tuesday in The Journal of the American Medical Association.

“The findings suggest that CTE may be related to prior participation in football, and that a high level of play may be related to substantial disease burden,” the authors wrote in their report.

Researchers in the current JAMA study diagnosed CTE in 87 percent of 202 former football players — including those in high school, college, the NFL, the Canadian Football League and semipro leagues.

The study is a result of collaboration between Boston University School of Medicine, the VA Boston Healthcare System and the Concussion Legacy Foundation.

Family members of players who exhibited CTE symptoms donated the brains for research.

“A brain bank was created to better understand the long-term effects of repetitive head trauma experienced through contact sport participation and military-related exposure,” the study said. “The purpose of the brain bank was to comprehensively examine the neuropathology and clinical presentation of brain donors considered at risk of development of CTE.”

The most common cause of death among those with mild stages of CTE (stages 1-2) was suicide, according to the study.

Symptoms related to dementia and Parkinson's disease were the leading cause of death — 47 percent — of former football players studied who had severe cases of CTE.

“This says to us that CTE is a problem,” Boston University neuropathologist Ann McKee, a study co-author, said in a podcast statement . “It is a problem associated with football. This is something that needs to be addressed.”

She said the study is the largest ever published on the link between brain injuries and football.

Some of the former NFL players included in the study were Ken Stabler, Bubba Smith, Dave Duerson, Earl Morrall and Ralph Wenzel.

“The medical and scientific communities will benefit from this publication, and the NFL will continue to work with a wide range of experts to improve the health of current and former NFL athletes,” the NFL said in a statement. “As noted by the authors, there are still many unanswered questions relating to the cause, incidence and prevalence of long-term effects of head trauma such as CTE. The NFL is committed to supporting scientific research into CTE and advancing progress in the prevention and treatment of head injuries.”

Last year, an NFL official for the first time publicly linked football to CTE, but the league later backpedaled.

Pittsburgh is deeply connected to the CTE issue.

Former Allegheny County Deputy Coroner Bennet Omalu discovered evidence linking football-related brain injuries to CTE while examining former Pittsburgh Steelers center Mike Webster's brain after his death.

While working at the coroner's office, Omalu chronicled his findings in the medical journal Neurosurgery.

Instead of heralding him for discovering CTE, the National Football League initially rebuked Omalu, whose findings eventually covered more than a dozen players, including former Steelers players Justin Strzelczyk and Terry Long.

His medical findings were highlighted in the 2015 movie “Concussion,” starring actor Will Smith, who portrayed Omalu. Many of the scenes were filmed in Pittsburgh.

Dr. Ronald L. Hamilton, a board-certified neuropathologist and associate professor of pathology at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, trained Omalu at Pitt. His character was played in the movie by actor Stephen Moyer.

“When Bennet Omalu showed me Mike Webster's neuropathology back in 2003, I never suspected it would be this prevalent,” he told the Tribune-Review on Tuesday. “I don't think anyone did. Especially not the NFL. However, a growing number of studies in living subjects who play football have shown that nearly all of the repetitive head trauma a player will get during the season is from practice. Other studies have clearly shown long-term white matter damage to the brain even after one season of play.”

Webster's brain was not among those studied in the brain bank findings reported Tuesday.

Duerson, whose character also was portrayed in the movie, shot himself inside his Florida home on Feb. 17, 2011. He sent a text message to his family. right before his death, asking that his brain be studied by the Boston University School of Medicine. He played safety for the Chicago Bears, New York Giants and Arizona Cardinals, appearing in four consecutive Pro Bowls from 1986 to 1989.

More than 10,000 retired football players have registered to receive payouts from a $1 billion settlement with the NFL in a class-action concussion-related lawsuit.

“We need to now look for ways to detect it in living people and, most importantly, to treat it in living people,” McKee said.

She acknowledged that the study focused only on a “highly skewed population.”

“We only get to look at these individuals at one point in time, that is at the time of their death,” she said. “This is not representative of American football players as a whole. Because most of the football players in our study played football at a very high level, that is college or above. So the results cannot be applied to the general population.”

Ben Schmitt is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7991, bschmitt@tribweb.com or on Twitter at @Bencschmitt.

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