Oct. 7, 2011 -- More than 500 current and former U.S. athletes have agreed to donate their brains to research – a gift they hope will protect future athletes from a progressive brain disease linked to concussions.
Former Buffalo Sabre Rick Martin, who died from a heart attack in March at age 59, is the latest professional athlete to be diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy – a condition brought on by repeated head trauma with features of Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and Lou Gehrig's disease. Although he had no symptoms, Martin's brain showed tell-tale signs of damage that researchers say would have led to dementia, impulsivity and rage.
"He had relatively mild CTE," said Dr. Ann Mckee, director of neuropathology at the Bedford VA Medical Center and co-director of Boston University's Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, where Martin's brain was studied. "At the age of 59, although he had some evidence of this neurodegeneration, it wasn't terribly advanced."
Martin's is one of 96 athlete brains already received by the VA Brain Bank. Of 70 analyzed, more than 50 have shown signs of CTE, including those from 14 of 15 former National Football League players.
But most of the athlete brains at the VA Brain Bank show signs of more severe disease. Like Alzheimer's disease, CTE has stages dictated by the amount and distribution of an abnormal protein called tau in the brain. In the early stages, the protein tends to cluster around blood vessels, later spreading to other "hotspots" in the brain involved in memory, movement and personality.
"As it gets more profound -- and this takes decades, really -- then we definitely see changes in memory, emotionality, even rage behavior," said McKee.
And it gets worse. The disease continues to progress -- albeit more slowly than Alzheimer's disease -- until patients have dementia, disrupted speech and uncoordinated movement.
"In the last three and a half years, we have made dramatic, really remarkable gains in understanding the nature of this disease: how it progresses through the nervous system; what kind of symptom to expect at each stage," said McKee. "The hope is that now that we know what it is we're dealing with, we can really address with research and basic science how to prevent it, how to slow it down or how to cure it."
That's why more than 500 athletes have signed on to donate their brains to the VA Brain Bank.
"I think this is an enormous problem for athletes," said McKee of CTE. "By signing on to this research, they promote their own long-term safety and certainly the safety of future players."
In February, former Chicogo Bears defensive back Dave Duerson fatally shot himself in the chest, leaving a note requesting his brain be sent to the "NFL brain bank" for study. McKee and colleagues later revealed that Duerson had CTE.
The deaths of three former NHL enforcers earlier this year rocked the hockey world. Wade Belak of the Nashville Predators, 35, hanged himself. Rick Rypien of the Winnipeg Jets, 27, also committed suicide. And Derek Boogaard of the New York Rangers, 28, suffered a fatal drug overdose. Boogaard's brain is among the 96 donated to the VA Brain Bank, but the results are still pending.
Martin played 11 seasons in the National Hockey League in the '70s and early '80s. But unlike other NHLers diagnosed with CTE, he was not a hard-hitting "goon." In fact he only suffered one known concussion in 1977. But until then, he didn't wear a helmet.
"Rick Martin's case shows us that even hockey players who don't engage in fighting are at risk for CTE, likely because of the repetitive brain trauma players receive throughout their career," Chris Nowinski, who co-directs the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy with McKee, said in a statement. "We hope the decision makers at all levels of hockey consider this finding as they continue to make adjustments to hockey to make the game safer for participants."