Seau's Brain May Provide Information to Help Athletes Avoid Dementia
First of all, let me express my condolences to the family and friends of former NFL player Junior Seau. I cannot begin to imagine how difficult it must be to learn that someone who had become such an integral part of the San Diego community took his own life by a self-inflicted gunshot to his chest on Wednesday.
The rare piece of good news in this tragic situation is that Seau’s family has agreed to donate his brain so that researchers can see if he was suffering any brain damage. ESPN.com quoted San Diego Chargers team chaplain Shawn Mitchell as saying, "The family was considering this almost from the beginning, but they didn't want to make any emotional decisions. And when they came to a joint decision that absolutely this was the best thing, it was a natural occurrence for the Seau family to go forward."
So why all the attention concerning Seau? First of all, it’s his success in the sport. He was considered one of the hardest-hitting linebackers in the league and was selected to the National Football League Pro Bowl for 12 consecutive years. Secondly, it’s his longevity in this sport. Seau played 13 seasons with the San Diego Chargers as well as later stints with the Miami Dolphins and New England Patriots. Seau continued to play professional football over a two-decade period, until he was 40 years old, which is far longer than the average career in the sport. And thirdly, this news adds another element to the continued discussions about whether there’s a link between football and dementia. As I reported in a sharepost in 2009, concern has been growing among professional players and their families that the constant battering that these players take may be leading to an increased likelihood that they will eventually be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, dementia and other types of brain diseases.
One of the leading researchers on brain trauma is already getting a look at Seau’s brain. Dr. Bennet Omalu, the forensic pathologist who first identified chronic brain damage as being a factor in the death of some NFL players, assisted in Seau’s autopsy. Omalu, who is the chief medical officer for San Joaquin County, California, founded the Brain Research Institute with Dr. Julian Bailes, who is a Chicago neurosurgeon and former team physician for the Pittsburg Steelers. The institute is focused on studying the damage to the brain caused by concussions. ESPN noted that Omalu is acknowledged as being the first to identify the signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) – a neurologic disease that can lead to erratic behavior that’s seen in people with dementia – in the brains of several deceased NFL players, including Pittsburg Steelers players Mike Webster and Terry Long and Philadelphia Eagles player Andre Waters. Omalu’s work in identifying “gridiron dementia” helped to set the stage for the NFL’s admission that there’s a connection between the sport and long-term brain damage.
Other groundbreaking work in this area is being done at the Boston University Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy. The San Diego U-T reported that the center has documented more than 50 cases of CTE in brains of athletes and military veterans since its founding in 2008. The center also is finding that brains of men who died when they were 40 and who had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease actually had CTE.
Some of Seau’s contemporaries have few doubts about what prompted Seau to make the decision to commit suicide in the way that he did as well as what researchers will find. The Associated Press reported, “Former player Kyle Turley, who is dealing with his own mental issues and already has agreed to donate his brain for research after his death, has no doubt that Seau wanted to make sure his brain could be studied for the telltale signs of football-related trauma.” Mitchell, the San Diego Charger chaplain, also was quoted by ESPN as saying the family made this decision "to help other individuals down the road."
Primary Sources for This Sharepost:
ESPN. (2012). Junior Seau family: Brain study OK.
Lavelle, J. & Lee, M. (2012). Seau death raises post-NFL health worries. San Diego U-T.com