NIH Study Sheds Light on Seau's Brain Injury

Dorian Martin Health Guide
  • It’s sad news, but not surprising. Junior Seau, a retired NFL star football player who committed suicide last fall, tested positive for a chronic brain condition called Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy. This condition has been documented in the brains of 50 football players who have died, including 33 players who competed in the National Football League.’s Jason Breslow noted that CTE can lead to dementia, memory loss as well as depression.

    This disease is believed to be caused in part from repeated head trauma, such as the violent tackles that continue to be part of the game today. As you may remember, Seau, who played for more than 20 seasons in the NFL, committed suicide in May 2012. He shot himself in the chest, which suggested that he wanted to have his brain donated to science. Seau’s ex-wife was quoted by several media outlets as saying that researchers told her that Seau’s CTE was caused by ““a lot of head-to-head collisions over the course of 20 years playing in the NFL … And that it gradually, you know, developed the deterioration of his brain and his ability to think logically.”

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    The National Institutes of Health’s National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) took the lead on examining Seau’s brain after it was donated by his family following his death.  NINDS then invited several national recognized neuropathologists to examine the analysis on the 12-time All-Pro player’s brain tissue. The examination found that the brain, which looked normal on initial inspection, had abnormalities that could be seen under the microscope. These abnormalities, which were consistent with a form of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), were abnormal small clusters of neurofibrillary tangles of the protein tau. Tau, a normal brain protein that creates tangled masses in the brain cells of people who have progressive neurological disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease, was found in several parts of Seau’s brain. The regional distribution of these tangles in Seau’s brain is unique to CTE.

    “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,” the NIH statement notes.

    Interestingly, reports that Seau didn’t have a history of diagnosed concussions.  “Seau may have masked symptoms — he had a reputation for being fearless — or Seau’s CTE could have resulted from hundreds of smaller-impact, ‘sub-concussive hits’ sustained over a 20-year NFL career,” writer Sean Gregory noted.

    In the past few years, the NFL has made some rule changes in order to reduce head injuries. These include stiffer penalties for helmet-to-helmet hits, moving kickoffs forward, and penning new guidelines on when a player can return to the field after showing signs of a concussion. Teams also have committed $30 million to support research at the NIH.

  • It’s also important for these types of rule changes to filter down to the college, high school and Pop Warner levels. Many of my conversations with my neighbor (who is ninth grade and plays football) revolve around pro and college gridiron contests. In my next conversation with him, I plan to ask him about what he’s learning so that he can tackle safely and avoid head injuries. And I want to find out from him what his high school coaches are telling him about the seriousness of concussions. And if you have sons, brothers, relatives or friends who play tackle football, I hope you’ll be asking these same questions.

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    Breslow, J. M. (2013). Junior Seau suffered chronic brain damage, NIH study finds.  PBS Frontline.

    Gregory, S. (2013). Will Junior Seau’s CTE diagnosis cause more ex-players to sue the NFL?

    National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. (2013). NIH Statement.

Published On: January 11, 2013