Dissecting the brain of a football player

In this video from The Guardian, researchers slice into the brain of former NFL player Dave Duerson.

Duerson struggled with the mental health effects of football-related brain injury, finally killing himself in February of this year. Before he died, he asked that his brain be donated to an organization known as the "NFL Brain Bank," where researchers the brains of deceased sports stars to study what happens to people when their heads are struck over and over and over again.

The Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy – a research facility so clunkily named that it's unsurprising Duerson used a semi-accurate abbreviation, "the NFL's brain bank" – sits in the pleasantly green and airy grounds of the Bedford VA medical centre in Massachusetts, about an hour's drive outside Boston. It was set up three years ago by concerned former athletes who joined forces with Boston University scientists to grapple with the long-term effects of concussions on sportsmen and women, soldiers and other people subjected to brain injuries.

In this morgue the world's largest bank of athletes' brains is being stored on dry ice. It has grown exponentially in the past couple of years to include 75 brains, mostly of American football players but also of hockey enforcers – the tough guys who do the bare-knuckle fighting – and of former soldiers caught in bomb blasts. A further 400 living athletes have promised to donate their brains upon death, including some of the biggest names in their sports. They include "Irish" Micky Ward, the boxer played by Mark Wahlberg in the film The Fighter, and American footballers Matt Birk (Baltimore Ravens), Lofa Tatupu (Seattle Seahawks) and Sean Morey (Arizona Cardinals).

Video Link

(Via Brian Malow)


  1. I’ve heard that former NFL players often end up totally disabled at a quite young age due to the wear on their bodies. Hulk Hogan, former pro wrestling idol has had both hips replaced and I imagine other parts too. I live in a city where the industries have long since moved on. What you see on the streets are men and women whose bodies are worn and bowed by long hours on the production line.

  2. I appreciate contact sports. Hope it brings about significant concussion research. Sorry it’s all too late for the guys from the era of “hah, he really got his bell rung.”

  3. So good to see this kind of work being done on such a large and growing scale. Football-induced brain injuries are a national disgrace in the U.S., the result for so many players AND families and friends of a bloodlust among too much of the American populace. 

    I stopped watching football a long time ago because I know what those games, put on for my mere entertainment, do to the players’ bodies and minds and emotions and psychology. Enjoying football while blocking out that awareness is one thing, plain and simple–a spectatorial pathology.

    1. Why the American specific hate? Rugby and Soccer players aren’t exactly delicate flowers on the field. Most sports incur physical harm and more so at the pursuit of a pro level paycheck.

      1. Cuz I’m a Murican. And I don’t watch Rugby. As for any claim that soccer debilitates like American football does–puhleeeze.

        1. As a ‘Murican you probably also know dick about other sports.


          My point being, if you find a bunch of millionaire slamming into each other a sport I don’t boohoo over their brain damage after the fact. Just park’em in one of their Ferrari on their mansion lawns and have their certified asswiper check on them now and again.

          1. The gross-out page you linked is all about broken legs and ankles (and what sentient adult doesn’t know those happen in soccer?), nothing about the MUCH more debilitating results of brain injury (again, debilitating not only to the players, but also to those they know). 

            Does the level of long-term debilitation caused by brain injuries in soccer come anywhere near that of American football? If not, you’re off topic, at best.

          2. They used to in the old days- the leather ball was very heavy when it became waterlogged, and frequent heading took its toll. Of course, with more modern balls that don’t absorb as much water, plus advances in tactics that mean “hoof it up the field for someone to head it” is less common, the risk is a lot smaller now.

        2. Soccer doesn’t (or at least shouldn’t) involve being knocked over all the time, true. On the other hand, getting hit on the (unprotected) head with a ball at high speed is an integral part of soccer. As far as I’m concerned, traumatic brain injuries are more debilitating than other injuries.

          1. Interesting. I wonder if that results in the kind of, and rate of, long-term debilitation that results from the innumerable concussive headshots in American football. Anyone know of studies on this?

      2. Rugby and non-American football players don’t surround themselves with plastic that lets them collide at effective speeds of 40 Mph and greater.  The impact of flesh upon flesh instead of pad upon pad makes the sport become self-regulating.

      3. Rugby and Soccer players aren’t exactly delicate flowers on the field.

        Well, Rugby players aren’t, at any rate.

          1. Australian Rugby players are known the world over for their intellect and grace. Many of them, particularly NRL players, read their own work at poetry open mike evenings.

    2. Tackle football is brutal helmet or no helmet (and this comes from
      someone who’s practiced competitive martial arts since age eight). Tag
      football’s a lot of fun though, and much healthier. Still, I haven’t
      heard many American ex-pro football players say they’d wish they’d never
      played. Glad they’re backing this research; it could help them and a lot
      of other people. But I’m not going to shed any tears over people who
      have the talent, fortune and work ethic to play pro sports. Not sure
      where the bloodlust comes in…I think you might be thinking of hockey

      I personally don’t see the appeal of spectator sports. Watching other
      people have fun is tedious and boring. So whether they’re achieving
      their dreams or being coerced to fight in a gladiator ring, I’m not
      enabling them to do it.

      Soccer, at least at the high school level I played it years ago, is
      dangerous primarily to the shins, calves and heels. I do kind of enjoy
      watching pro footballers – they’re like ninja acrobats when they
      grandstand – but I still can’t through a whole game.

  4. It’s not just NFL player’s. This is proof that any kind of concussion to the head cause injury to the brain and repeated concussion whether mild or heavy cause injury. Kids playing football taking blow after blow, game after game will end up with brain damage. Car accidents, motorcycle accidents – helmet or not, four wheelers, and IED’s, etc. cause BRAIN DAMAGE. When will people realize that a Tramatic Brain Injury doesn’t have to have a scare to be serious. It’s not a laughing matter for the people that have to live with it on a daily bases.

  5. Where is the rest of the video? Those two minutes can’t be all of it, right? Besides, the way they handle that brain seems pretty unprofessional to me, but I don’t know how they normally do it. I would take pictures of every step.

  6. Well, it’s been a few hours since this was posted, and since no one has pointed out yet that the brain in the video is not Duerson’s, I guess I’ll do it. It’s pretty clearly stated in the linked article.

  7. The point is that the specific types of actions that lead to brain injury later on are common in football. The helmets, in particular, enable you to slam your head into other guys (and their helmets) repeatedly without the cracked skulls that would lead to somebody being taken off the field. It’s the difference between less-frequent but more obvious immediately dangerous injuries and more frequent but less obvious dangerous injuries that destroy you a couple decades later.

    It’s good to see that these types of long-term injuries are finally getting the attention they deserve. Football would probably be a lot safer in the long term if they got rid of the helmets. Once you actually have to start watching out for your own head, you’re less likely to get the frequent low-level pounding that really damages your brain.

    Also, it’s pretty laughable to think of soccer players as tough guys, considering how they fall to the ground and writhe about in pain looking for a red card if an opposing player brushes by them slightly.

  8. Lot of you must have played a different type of soccer from the one I played.  But of course american football is heavier contact.

    But on topic, this is pretty cool.  It’s related to something that’s always bugged me about our athlete entertainers.

    For a lot of kids, sports is the only way they can make it out of a shitty situation, so they sacrifice their bodies like fucking gladiators.  We should find out what it’s costing them.

    1. But of course american football is heavier contact.

      In handegg, it seems like mass is sometimes the primary qualification for making the team. It’s hard to imagine Refrigerator Perry playing rugby, let alone soccer.

      1. “handegg”

        You know, “football” refers to the fact that the game is played on foot, not horseback. And there are many types of football played around the world (American, Association (soccer), Canadian, Gaelic, Australian Rules, Rugby Union, Rugby League, etc.), all of which ultimately trace their origins back to games played in English schools, most of which involve a ball that isn’t a sphere and most of which involve picking up the ball with your hands at least some of the time.

        Also, the general practice is to refer to whatever is the dominant local form as simply “football” (unless it’s rugby, I think) unless the context makes it clear that you’re talking about some other form.

  9. I was a very big kid and people always used to ask if I played football. I replied that no, I liked my head the shape that it was. Apparently that was the better bet in the long run.

  10. It still baffles me how “bare-knuckle fighting” is so blithely accepted as a part of hockey, when it’s not even legal in, you know, *boxing*.

  11. I’m with TSA , where’s the rest of the video ?
    Can anyone point out what the characteristics she is referring to are.

  12. Pretty much all professional athletes experience cardiovascular problems later in life because of training, supplements (or drugs), the lifestyle of young people with too much money, etc. They also tend to have extremely bad joints and a lot retire because of injury that only causes more problems later in life. As bad as brain injuries are, sports stars will lead a shorter life than the average person. It’s just too extreme an activity for a body to handle for that long – even in non contact sports.

    I think a lot of contact sport players will even die of blood clots before brain injury if I remember correctly.

  13. Sure it looks gross, but I don’t know what a normal brain of the same age looks like when you slice it open. Anybody have a good link for comparison?

  14. Because it’s an unarmored hand vs. an mostly armored cranium and torso.
    Except for knocking out teeth or breaking a nose (bad enough, I know),
    bare hand punch to a helmeted head is more likely to result in a broken

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