Brutal damage to football players' brains

 Cnn 2009 Health 01 26 Athlete.Brains Art.Healthy.Brain.Full-1  Cnn 2009 Health 01 26 Athlete.Brains Art.Damaged.Brain.Full
Above left is an image of healthy brain tissue. Above right is brain tissue of a middle-aged football player. It reveals the intense damage from repeated concussions received on the field. According to Dr. Ann McKee, co-director of the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy (CSTE), the damage looks similar to that of an 80-year-old with dementia caused by Alzheimer's disease. The CSTE have found the condition, called chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), in the donated brains of dead NFL players John Grimsley, Mike Webster, Andre Waters, Justin Strzelczyk and Terry Long. From CNN:
"What's been surprising is that (the damage is) so extensive," said Dr. Ann McKee, a neuropathologist at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Bedford, Massachusetts, and co-director of the CSTE. "It's throughout the brain, not just on the superficial aspects of the brain, but it's deep inside."

The damage affects the parts of the brain that control emotion, rage, hypersexuality, even breathing, and recent studies find that CTE is a progressive disease that eventually kills brain cells.
"Dead athletes' brains show damage from concussions"


  1. Ouchhh!!! Luckily I’m not interested to play these football or any soccer game. Anyway, I think the rewards is more worth a lot that they don’t care anymore about those tiny weeny brain cells.

  2. I think that almost fifteen years on the Web has done that to my brain. Okay, maybe all that ac!d had something to do with it too….

  3. I’m not familiar with these players, but not surprising if they are the players who have a lot of high impact collisions (e.g., special teams, receivers,…). Unfortunately, I think many of the linemen (who don’t have a lot of high impact collision) often end up with heart disease.

  4. @1 VREMPIRE – American Football (full armored contact) is the bloodsport relative of European soccer (occasional light contact). These pictures prove the point.

    My question – is Professional hockey, where fistfights without helmets are a part of the game, any different?

  5. This is not a new problem. Former Steeler’s lineman Terry Long (mentioned above) died from complications of his long-term brain damage and this was known shortly after his death in 2005. Dementia pugilistica is a form of dementia caused by repeated impacts on the head which was initially found in former boxers (hence the name of the syndrome) but has since been found in both football and even some soccer players. The presence of CTE in football players thus isn’t that surprising. I’m not sure how this is newsworthy.

  6. Fallacy of causality. Who is to say that they didn’t have the brain damage first, causing them to play football? :)

    #4: I went to a fight, and a hockey game broke out!

  7. I think this conclusion is backwards. Perhaps only individuals with damaged brains choose to play football.

  8. @4 MDH
    No, I think you’ll find American football (full, armoured contact) is the cissy relative of British Rugby (full, non-armoured contact).

    And anyway, it shouldn’t be called football at all, cos that’s what soccer’s meant to be called. Trust the Americans to come up with a sport which nobody else plays (so nobody can beat them at it) and then insist on calling it a name which the rest of the world uses for something else.

  9. As the guy who was always the last to be chosen to any team, I agree with everyone stating that it is brain damage that causes interest in sports.

    The damages from repeated hits just look extra bad because there was very little working in there to begin with.

  10. @chezzo

    I sense facetiousness mixed with honest belief in your post, but the topic of the post belies the “cissy” accusation.

  11. Very sad. But pro football players themselves are at least partly to blame.

    We generally leave violent contact sports alone when it comes to government regulation. And that’s the way athletes seem to want it. Can you imagine how much howling there would be if OSHA stepped in and said, well, hey, thems is some dangerous working conditions?

    Of if CPS stepped into high school football and said that something needed to be done to more protect players from concussions and other serious injuries?

    So we allow our ‘gridiron warriors’ to do what they want to do and are glorified doing.

    And then they end up mentally damaged.

    Now exactly who is to blame for that? I think it’s ourselves, our culture that doesn’t even begin to see that football is a violent sport for what end, and for the players themselves for simply not thinking that, gee, getting concussed like this probably isn’t such a good thing.

  12. “The damage affects the parts of the brain that control emotion, rage, hypersexuality…”

    This describes almost every football player I’ve known. Cause or effect of playing football?

  13. You don’t have to have repeated impacts with other players for the damage to be done. West Brom footballer, pundit and all round nice bloke Jeff Astle was killed by a degenerative brain disease thought to have been triggered by excessive heading of footballs espoecially wet leather ones.

  14. @Chezzo:

    Look at the can of worms you just opened…

    For the record, there are seven major forms of football played on this big blue rock of ours.

    1.) Association Football (Soccer)
    2.) Rugby Union Football
    3.) Rugby League Football
    4.) Australian Rules Football
    5.) American Football
    6.) Canadian Football
    7.) Gaelic Football

    Obviously, the last four are nation-specific, but they’re all the most popular sports in their countries of origin.

    Some football codes are more violent than others, obviously, but they’re all football. The organization that runs your preferred form of football is called the RUGBY FOOTBALL UNION. Where do you think Americans got the idea to call our gridiron game “football?” Rugby *was* our football until Walter Camp came along.

    The bottom line is that we all agreed to the rules of these games, and we can agree to change those rules any time we want.

    As far as the concussion issue goes, imagine how bad American football would be if there weren’t helmets and pads. In fact, you don’t have to imagine it — 18 college football players died in 1905, and dozens more were maimed on the field. It got so bad that President Roosevelt ordered the NCAA to “change the game or forsake it.” So some dude named Heisman came up with the forward pass.

    Look in the right-hand sidebar here, and you might learn a little something about humanity’s milliennia-long footballing heritage.

  15. Histology can be deceiving if they use different stains, and the slide on the left hardly looks like brain. The one on the right is either trichrome or immunohistochemically stained. Not to say that there is no difference between someone with CTE and someone without, but these two pictures aren’t fair comparisons either.

  16. That’s my brain on the right. I’ve had half a dozen concussions that I know about, including several car accidents and a 100 foot fall into water (knocked me out, dislocated my shoulder, ruptured one of my lungs) and I’ve been struck violently in the head many hundreds of times.

    So does that make me a bad person? Is it safe to stereotype?


  17. I like the idea that rugby, gridiron, Aussie rules, etc, all grew out of Maori Ki-o-Rahi — slyly introduced at Rugby School by Thomas Arnold as a war training game, after being rejected by the upper crust of British society as being non-Christian.

  18. @#6 claud9999:


    @#12 jedweb:

    HA HA!

    @#15 Bloodboiler:

    HA HA HA!

    @#19 Phil_A_Minion:

    HA HA HA HA!

    Some jokes just get funnier every time they are repeated… Actually, I guess they don’t, particularly when they were barely funny in their first iteration (no offense claud9999, yours was by far the most funny and least mean spirited). In the absence of getting funnier, at least they get more and more crass. I guess we can take comfort in that. Ah, comfort…

  19. Interesting how these men can choose to suffer such severe brain damage and get paid millions for it, but if I fail to wear my seatbelt, I get a ticket. Thanks for keeping us safe, Big Brother!

  20. MDH, Chezzo, Grimc, WaveyDavey:

    I’m with Chezzo, who is actually saying the same thing WaveyDavey is hinting at (with some snide thrown in); rugby is American football without the helmets and pads.

    Man up, America! :D

  21. @28 Riptide
    They are required to wear helmets
    We all are required to wear seatbelts

    Neither prevents all possible harm, but each at least mitigates the most serious risks.

    Doesn’t seem so odd to me…

  22. Riptide, you can choose to suffer severe brain damage too, but you can’t hand it out with your ragdoll carcass.

    And bodies are so messy when they go splat, especially when they’ve been handily lacerated on the way through the windscreen. Better to keep them all bagged up nicely, in their vehicle, until the tow truck can come and haul them away. Clean roads.. mmm :)

  23. Me @ #31

    Oops! I didn’t mean to imply the snide was WaveyDavey’s! I should have put the parenthesized bit at the other end of the sentence.. I meant it for Chezzo!

    Sorry Wavey :)

    And sorry Chezzo ;p

  24. The damage affects the parts of the brain that control emotion, rage, hypersexuality…

    so… given your average professional athlete, how do you know when brain damage has actually occurred?

    1. The damage affects the parts of the brain that control emotion, rage, hypersexuality…so… given your average professional athlete, how do you know when brain damage has actually occurred?

      Yet boxers (who aren’t named Mike Tyson) tend to be among the most well-behaved athletes despite a very high number of head injuries.

  25. Again, the damage is from repeated concussions, not from playing football. And the NFL has been concussion-conscious for a while. I can’t recall the last time I heard any sportscaster laugh and say ‘he really got his bell rung’. Everyone in the league knows it’s serious. Those pix and stories prove that.

  26. @#35 WeightedCompanionCube:

    See, now that one actually was funny (it’s all in the subtleties). Good show!

  27. @: MDH, Chezzo, Grimc, WaveyDavey, Arkrizzle

    It’s really bad that people take this uninformed view of American Football. I play in the UK, and all I get is told I’m a pussy who is has to play with pads.

    Rugby and Gridiron football are two completely different games. The tackling is different, the rules on contact are different, and the dangers are different.

    I used to play Rugby Union, then switched to League and then to American Football. Mainly because I get to hit people much more in Football.

    What makes it worse is that because of my choice, I’m constantly insulted and literally attacked but Rugby fans. A little tollerance would be nice.

  28. Watching soccer players practice smashing the ball with their head is really shocking. Using your head as a blunt instrument for recereational sports is kind of a sacrilege against human dignity, if you ask me.

    The idea that soccer coaches are teaching kids to do this is unbelievable. They don’t do that anymore, do they???

  29. Maybe if we send this to Brett Favre he’ll finally get the message. Or maybe that’s why he decided to un-retire in the first place.

    – Disgruntled Packer fan

  30. Well this somewhat justifies the millions that football players make. If someone offered to make me a multi millionaire but have brain damage by the time I was 40…I’d say no.

  31. i wonder if they cross reference with the use of steroids and other chemical enhancements strategies of pro athletes. i also wonder if there is any way to counteract the effect.. kind of like the way that cameras have an anti-shake built into the image capture.. maybe an anti-shake helmet with a more electronic offset of impact in realtime .. or maybe they should make tackling illegal.. flag superbowl. go steelers

  32. Ooh, now I feel like a chump, KC, I never got to be a multi-millionaire!

    Well, I guess I get “hypersexuality” as a consolation prize. Could be worse.


  33. The thing about wearing all that equipment is American Football players hit faster and harder. Most severe rugby injuries are in the scrum, not in open field tackles. I would love to see what happens when a 325lb defensive tackle, who can cover 40 yards in under 5 seconds and bench press over 500 lbs, hits any padded up rugby player.

  34. I’d argue with really aggressive sports like boxing, a mindset calls one the sport, vs. the sport (or injury from it) creating a mindset.

    Mike Tyson had a few loose screws long before he got punished enough to have dain bramage.

  35. #19 posted by Phil_A_Minion , January 27, 2009 12:03 PM

    “The damage affects the parts of the brain that control emotion, rage, hypersexuality…”

    This describes almost every football player I’ve known. Cause or effect of playing football?

    Sounds like steroids to me.

  36. If a study came out that showed that football caused impotence and sterility, interest in playing the sport at all age levels would instantly plummet.

    It’s a small dream, but it’s mine.

  37. So football helmets don’t really help? I suppose that means it’s more the sudden acceleration than the actual blow to the head…I wonder if they could find a springy material to put inside the helmets that would spread the acceleration over a larger period of time…

  38. Football helmets help, in that they will mitigate the effect of one blow (before needing replacement). Where they don’t help is where human nature comes in – if you can hit someone harder without hurting them as much, you hit harder. Adding armor changes which types of injury are more prevalent; only rules changes can increase or decrease injuries overall.

  39. Jesse M…

    The problem is sudden deceleration which causes the brain to rotate and to slam into the bony interior structure of the skull. Rotation causes tearing and shearing of axons which disrupt information flow, generally diffusely throughout the brain. This is compounded by “coup” and “counter-coup” injuries where the brain knocks against the skull at opposite points.

    The effect of concussion is cumulative, although many people can suffer significantly, and for an extended period of time after a single concussion. The worst injury appears to take place where there is more than one concussion in a row without sufficient time for each to heal. Graphs showing the effect of number of concussions on tasks that measure brain processing speed show a linear decline with the increasing number of concussions. Every concussion should be avoided, and if you’ve already had one or more you should be especially careful.

    Unfortunately helmet design will not stop problems with deceleration of the head and rotation of the brain. The safest option would be to avoid contact sports.

  40. Pork @55: au contraire, trolling is undergoing a renaissance at this moment in history, much akin to the renaissance in rugby, gridiron & other Ki-o-Rahi derivatives that took place 100 years ago.

    Never has there been a finer time to poke fun at people millions of miles away, who you’ll never meet. Like Takuan. Who, btw, really is STOOOPID

  41. Err I didn’t intend to be snide about American Football, Rugby or any other game. All I was saying was you can get injured in ball games without it involving running into/contact with other players. Proper design of the sporting equipment can reduce that risk – e.g. wet leather (soccer) footballs bad – plastic ones better. Sheesh you are a tough crowd.

  42. Having just had a relative suffer a Traumatic Brain Injury, I can say the diffuse injury of axonal shearing results from the brain not being homogeneous. As the brain, which is floating in our skulls, bounces around and twists the gray and white regions, which have different densities, move relative to each other causing diffuse axonal injury. Two-thirds of the lesions are found at the gray-white matter junction. The rest are found in the areas of impact, which are many due to this bouncing around.

    Also, when part of the neuron degenerates and releases toxic levels of neurotransmitters and calcium into the synapse or space between neurons, uninjured neurons are damaged through a “secondary neuroexcitatory cascade”. Therefore, neurons that survived the initial decel impact are damaged by this secondary injury. Many of these cells cannot survive the toxicity of the excess neurotransmitters and calcium, so they also die. This usually happens within the first day or two after the initial injury.

    When we first learned of her injury, we found out around 90% of the victims remain in a persistent vegetative state. They had to remove three large triangular pieces of her skull to allow her brain to swell. These pieces were cryogenically frozen and later put back in place. She is still in a assisted living facility, but is actually a walking and talking miracle.

    She tires easily and has trouble forming new memories and making decisions, but a strange result of the injury is she can’t cry. This is very upsetting to her. She knows what happened to her and understands her disability. Her relationship with her young daughter is passing her by and she wants to have a good cry, but can’t.

  43. What about the guys who run the artillery in the army? Are the concussions from the guns causing brain damage in them?

  44. So how is Alan Page a Supreme Court Justice after enduring the same injuries? And he played in the 70s when a lot of things which are illegal now were standard practice. These brain injuries are very curious.

  45. This makes me wonder about some of the behavioral “quirks” that have traditionally been attributed to the use of steroids, like extreme irritability, rage, etc.

    It also makes me wonder what the brains of PTSD victims look like. Or anyone who has been exposed to multiple shock-waves from explosions.

  46. I recall watching a documentary somewhat recently about this on TV. They were discussing the premature deaths of the Edmonton Eskimos football players from one specific time frame. They mentioned concussions and also went into Chris Benoit and other people in similar sports. When I see the amount of concussions hockey players are getting nowadays, it now has me wondering about that sport as well.

    I wish I cold recall which channel I saw it on or the name of the show. Forgive me if someone posted about it already. I’ll try to find it.

  47. Re: #22

    You wrote:

    “For the record, there are seven major forms of football played on this big blue rock of ours.

    1.) Association Football (Soccer)
    2.) Rugby Union Football
    3.) Rugby League Football
    4.) Australian Rules Football
    5.) American Football
    6.) Canadian Football
    7.) Gaelic Football

    “Obviously, the last four are nation-specific, but they’re all the most popular sports in their countries of origin.”

    I apologize for this pedantic nitpicking, but you are of course wrong about #6. Canadian football (which, BTW, is almost exactly the same as American football, just with a longer field, a point awarded for touchbacks, and smaller, less-talented players) is quite popular up there, but is an extremely distant second in popularity to hockey.

    (Now I suppose someone will comment that I should have written “ice hockey,” as most of the world thinks of “hockey” as a game played on grass with upside-down canes. Because I’m pretty sure are more people in the Indian subcontinent and girls’ private schools than in Canada and Minnesota. I’ll check my almanac.)


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