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Jack Sisson's TBI Blog

A hug is duct tape for the soul.


From The Boston Globe:

“YOU SEE all those brown little things?’’ Ann McKee asked me as I looked through a microscope. I was viewing a slide sample of the brain of Dave Duerson, the Notre Dame All-American defensive back who won Super Bowls with the 1985 Chicago Bears and the 1990 New York Giants. Duerson was a Notre Dame trustee, a National Football League Man of the Year for community service, and an economics major who completed a management program at Harvard Business School. Early in his football retirement, he nearly tripled the annual sales of a meat supply company to $63.5 million.

The glory and fortune disappeared in the last decade. An onset of memory loss, hammering headaches, spelling problems, blurred vision, and hot temper led to spousal abuse, divorce, bankruptcy, and, finally, suicide last February at age 50. In the most eerie recognition yet by an ex-football player as to why he was losing his mind, Duerson shot himself in the chest to preserve his head for research. He left behind the now-famous note, “Please, see that my brain is given to the NFL’s brain bank.’’

That brain was sliced open by McKee, a co-director of Boston University’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy. The “brown things’’ were nerve cells filled with tau protein, prevalent in degenerating brains like those in Alzheimer’s disease. There were so many brown spots, with tails curling off them, that the slide looked like a muddy negative of spinning galaxies.

In that microscopic universe, we were looking into the black hole of contact sports: Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy. This was the hole likely blown into Duerson’s head in a career of at least 10 recognized concussions and countless subconcussive hits. This is the void we still let our kids fall into, cheering them all the way.

‘‘If it were a normal person, you would see absolutely none of that,’’ McKee said in her lab at the Bedford Veterans Administration Medical Center, where she also runs brain banks for research on military injuries, Alzheimer’s, and heart disease. She pointed out how the tails of the tau-infested cells made long projections to make contact with other cells, causing short circuits and disordered thoughts.

‘‘Totally chaos,’’ she said. ‘‘I deal with neurodegenerative disease all the time, but you don’t see it in 50-year-olds even if you had a gene for the disease.’’

McKee then showed me a slide of another well-known NFL player who died in his late 70s or early 80s. The constellations of tau were overwhelming. “He’s got disease everywhere,’’ McKee said. “There is no place I can go in this brain that’s just not incredibly diseased. I’ve never seen anything like this. This is the worst case I’ve seen. This guy’s brain is 800 grams, half the size of most players’ brains.’’


A slide from a healthy brain would have had a far more clear background with blue spots. The difference in an injured athlete’s brain is so dramatic that the comparisons should be required viewing for parents and youths contemplating high-contact sports and the coaches, athletic directors, and school principals in charge of them. These images should be pinned on the wall with those of blackened lungs we’ve long used to scare teens from smoking. They just might scare parents and officials into keeping children away from such sports until the sport is changed to minimize head injury.

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