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Matt Rourke/AP
Former NHL player Keith Primeau.

Keith Primeau Is Latest Athlete to Bequeath Brain to Science

April 14, 2009 11:25 AM
by Denis Cummings
Retired NHLer Keith Primeau announced that after his death his brain will be given to researchers studying the long-term effects of concussions.

Primeau to Donate Brain for Research

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Former Philadelphia Flyers center Keith Primeau, who retired in 2006 due to the effects of multiple concussions, announced this month that after his death his brain will be donated to the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy at the Boston University School of Medicine for research.

The CSTE, created in 2008 by the BUSM and Sports Legacy Institute, is dedicated to studying the effects of concussions in athletes. Its research is focused on chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), also known as dementia pugilistica, a neurological disorder caused by multiple blows to the head.

Primeau has shown early signs of CTE, including light-headedness and depression, though he has yet to suffer from memory impairment, emotional instability or erratic behavior, all symptoms of CTE.

CTE can only be detected in tests after a person has died. Primeau and more than 100 other professional, college and high school athletes have agreed to join the CSTE Living Donor Registry, allowing their brains to be tested after their deaths. They will also give annual interviews to discuss symptoms.

“CTE is the only fully preventable cause of dementia,” says CSTE co-director Dr. Robert Stern in a BUSM press release. “By studying large numbers of athletes’ brain tissue through our expanding CSTE brain bank and through the longitudinal examination of our brain donors throughout their lives, we will be able to determine the specific risk factors for CTE.”

Background: CTE and the CSTE

Chronic traumatic encephalopathy was first recognized by doctors in the 1920s and became known as pugilistica dementia because it was found primarily in boxers. “Initially CTE sufferers may display clinical symptoms such as memory impairment, emotional instability, erratic behavior, depression and problems with impulse control,” explains the CTSE. “CTE eventually progresses to full-blown dementia.”

In recent years, researchers have found that CTE is much more widespread than previously believed, as it affects athletes in many sports and can even affect high school athletes. In January, the CSTE discovered that an 18-year-old football player had the early signs of CTE.

“The findings are very shocking because we never thought anybody that young could already be started down the path to this disease,” said Dr. Robert Cantu of the CSTE.

The CSTE has thus far studied the brains of seven deceased NFL players, six of whom were found to have CTE. Most of these men, who were between the ages of 36 and 50 when they died, had drastic personality and behavior changes; of the six deaths, five were self-inflicted. The CTSE also found that wrestler Chris Benoit, who killed himself and his family in 2007, suffered from CTE.

Primeau said in an interview with Rogers Sportsnet that he is worried his own personality and behavior may change one day. “I think my biggest fear is the day I notice a change and the change will be rapid and that scares me,” he said.

Former Patriots linebacker Ted Johnson, who says that he suffered about 100 concussions during his NFL career, says that leagues and teams must do a better job recognizing the long-term effects of concussions and protecting players from serious head injuries.

“I shouldn’t have to prove to anybody that there’s something wrong with me,” he told The New York Times, adding that the NFL must admit that concussions cause long-term health problems. “Any doctor who doesn’t connect concussions with long-term effects should be ashamed of themselves,” he said.

Primeau said that he hopes the research at CSTE will lead to a change in the way teams treat concussions. “If the knowledge is discovered, and scientific examination proves that post-concussion leads to serious deterioration of brain function, then medically someone needs to step in and tell a player they can no longer do what they love to do,” he said.

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Reference: Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy; Sports Legacy Institute

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