Matt Birk, Lofa Tatupu, Sean Morey
Associated Press
Left to right: Matt Birk, Lofa Tatupu, Sean Morey

Three NFL Players Join List of Athletes Bequeathing Brains to Concussion Research

September 14, 2009 02:30 PM
by Denis Cummings
NFL Pro Bowlers Matt Birk, Lofa Tatupu and Sean Morey will donate their brains to a program studying chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a neurological disorder caused by blows to the head.

NFL Players to Donate Brain for Research

The Baltimore Ravens’ Matt Birk, Seattle Seahawks’ Lofa Tatupu and Arizona Cardinals’ Sean Morey will donate their brains and spinal cord tissue after death to the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, a program at the Boston University School of Medicine dedicated to studying the effects of concussions in athletes.

The CSTE, created in 2008 by the BUSM and Sports Legacy Institute, focuses its research on chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), also known as dementia pugilistica, a neurological disorder caused by multiple blows to the head. Its symptoms include light-headedness, depression, memory impairment, emotional instability and erratic behavior.

More than 150 athletes have joined the CSTE Living Donor Registry, including 40 retired NFL players; Birk, Tatupu and Morey are the first active NFL players to join. They have agreed to discuss their health in annual interviews until their death.

“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 throughout their lives, as well as examining brain tissue through our expanding CSTE brain bank, we will be able to determine the specific risk factors for CTE and potentially develop effective treatments.”

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.

Keith Primeau, who was forced to retire from the NHL due to multiple concussions, 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.

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


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