Research Finds Football Hits May Lead to Brain Injury

Research finds that high-impact football may lead to brain injuries.

ByABC News
October 16, 2009, 3:31 PM

Oct. 16, 2009— -- Football players are getting bigger. The game is getting faster. Now, the chorus of concern is getting louder. At least four recent studies have raised serious questions about the impact of pro football on the brains of players. But are they being driven mad by the game?

Garrett Webster treasures every memory of his father, legendary Pittsburgh Steeler Mike Webster.

"These [rings] are, I guess you could say what my dad got back for giving his life, three Super Bowl rings and a Hall of Fame ring," Garrett Webster said. "My dad was everyone I wanted to be. I mean he was smart, funny and he was caring and loving. To me he was Iron Mike. ..."

"Iron" Mike Webster, as he was known, was a seemingly indestructible center for the Steelers during the 1970s and '80s. He played 150 straight games, winning four Super Bowls. He was selected to the Pro Bowl nine times.

Dr. Julian Bailes, chairman of neurosurgery at the West Virginia University Hospitals, was team doctor toward the end of Webster's playing career.

"He was the consummate professional, one of the greatest players on perhaps the greatest team ever," he said. "And he was the leader; he was the center of the line and was the focal point. And I think he was the spiritual leader in many ways of that team."

That's why nobody could understand Mike Webster's behavior after he retired from the game at age 38.

"It was a fast, major change," Garrett Webster said. "We would go through times where he would have absolute mood swings and just destroy things in our apartment, our house, his memorabilia."

"I remember one time he got so angry ... he smashed the porcelain sink to pieces," he said. "Then other things started to change. We noticed he wasn't there for birthdays, we noticed he was forgetting to come home at night. We noticed he would disappear for days, weeks on end."

Mike Webster's life began to disintegrate. He started living out of a truck, used a Taser gun to ease his back pain and put Super Glue on his teeth. His behavior was incomprehensible to friends and family -- and its connection to the game he loved seemed unclear. Mike Webster was never known to have suffered a single documented concussion during 17 years of pro football.

On a cold September morning in 2002, just after his 50th birthday, Mike Webster died.

Dr. Bennet Omalu, a neuropathologist who grew up in Nigeria and was qualified to practice in the United States, was working as a medical examiner in Pittsburgh at the time of Webster's death and performed the autopsy. He confirmed that Webster had died of a heart attack.

"However, a question kept on lingering in my mind. The heart attack could not explain his life after football. I had to provide an explanation for that," Omalu told "Nightline." "I took out his brain, and I was extremely disappointed when I opened up his skull and his brain looked normal. His brain looked like a perfect textbook picture of a normal brain."

Determined to find answers, Omalu got permission to continue studying Webster's brain. After months of painstaking microscopic analysis, a whole new scientific account began to unravel. Omalu said what he found was nothing less than a new medical condition.

The brown blotches mark the accumulation of tau protein -- an abnormal substance that can emerge within the brain after repeated blows to the head. It's known to kill off brain cells, ultimately leading to cognitive dysfunction, even dementia, Omalu said. It's rare to find accumulation in the brain of a 90-year-old -- but at the time it was almost unheard of in a man of 50.

Omalu said that scientific papers have suggested that as few as three major head impacts can result in the abnormalities.

"One individual may just have one major impact to the head. Another individual may have two, another individual may have 1,000 before they will develop this disease," Omalu said.

In the absence of any title for his discovery, he called the disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE. He wrote up his findings and sent them to the prestigious academic journal Neurosurgery.

But there was a swift reaction. Several doctors on a committee convened by the NFL to study brain trauma demanded its retraction. But the journal was satisfied with Omalu's work and refused.

"I thought it was my responsibility as a physician. I've seen something unique to report to the general scientific community," Omalu said.

A few months later, Omalu would receive the body of another storied football player. His findings were the same.

"This is how diseases are discovered and identified. So I published the second case. Oh, newspapers, some doctors went to the press. In fact they were insinuating I was practicing voodoo medicine," Omalu told "Nightline." "They called me names -- preposterous, unscientific methods. But again, you seek the truth, and the truth will set you free."

Bailes was the first and most senior clinician in the country to support Omalu's research.

"I reviewed Dr. Omalu's publication, the first one, the sentinel case of Mike Webster. It obviously struck a chord with me because I felt that I knew Mike very well professionally and personally," he said. "The letter of retraction demanded by the NFL was also unusual, and I thought inappropriate, and I thought they had missed the point."

There was now no stopping Omalu. A third body was delivered to his laboratory. Omalu noticed that all of his cases displayed common symptoms, including memory loss, insomnia, alcohol use, drug use and diminished executive functioning, or the loss of the ability to engage in complex mental functioning like business investments and money management. They were paranoid, exhibited manic depressive episodes, breakdown in social relationships and had criminal tendencies, he said.