Aug. 17, 2010 -- A study released today raises questions about whether baseball great Lou Gehrig actually died of the disease that has come to bear his name, or a similar, newly discovered condition connected to repeated head injuries.
The study examined 12 athletes who had chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), and found that three of them had symptoms that looked like those of Lou Gehrig's disease, amyotophic lateral sclerosis.
Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis is an incurable disease that kills by destroying the nervous system. It's an extremely rare disease: Fewer than 6,000 people in the United States are diagnosed each year.
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As the disease progresses, patients lose the ability to control their muscle movement, eventually becoming completely paralyzed.
In the study published today, researchers at Boston University looked at the brains and spinal cords of 12 athletes who had CTE and discovered that three of them had symptoms that looked like those of ALS. CTE, however, develops after a patient sustains multiple head injuries.
Games that expose athletes to trauma to the head, and to the brain, create many of the same symptoms seen in ALS.
"What we're looking at is a brand new disease, another motor neuron disease that seems to be associated with head trauma," said Dr. Robert Stern, one of the authors of the study.
The study authors are calling the newly identified condition chronic traumatic encephalomyopathy (CTEM), and said it is "likely" caused by repeated head injuries.
Two former football players diagnosed with ALS, Wally Hillenburg and Eric Scoggins, actually had this newly discovered condition, the study says.
Could Gehrig Not Have Had ALS?
The question now is whether Gehrig himself had ALS or CTEM.
Gehrig suffered numerous head traumas, both as a football player at Columbia University and during his days playing baseball, as documented in a scene from the 1943 film, "Pride of the Yankees," that shows Gehrig -- played on-screen by Gary Cooper -- taking a hit to the head with a baseball.
Could Lou Gehrig not have died from Lou Gehrig's Disease?
Scientists may never know for sure: Gehrig's body was cremated after his death.
But since he did not have had any of the cognitive or behavioral problems associated with CTEM, and his well-documented and only noted symptoms were motor problems, it is still most likely that Gehrig did have ALS.