This post has been corrected. See the note at the bottom for details.
A series of at least six concussions incurred by Terry Bradshaw while he was the Super Bowl-winning quarterback of the Pittsburgh Steelers are beginning to interfere with his ability to carry out his current duties as a football analyst for Fox Sports, the ex-player said this week in a blog. Bradshaw said he is suffering from deficits in short-term memory and impairments in his hand-eye coordination. He is being treated at the Amen Clinic in Newport Beach, but experts fear that the best he can hope for is a slowing of the progression of the disorder rather than an improvement in function.
Bradshaw's revelations come at a time when the long-term health effects of repeated concussions have become of increasing concern to players and fans. The league has begun taking some actions to prevent concussions, including punishments for head-to-head hits, and moving up the kickoff spot to limit the number of returns, which feature some of the hardest hits in the game. Improved helmets have become available, and players who suffer a concussion during a game are required to sit out for at least the remainder of the game, but some critics charge that these efforts are still not enough.
"There is growing concern about the long-term effects of concussions" and even of head trauma that doesn't quite rise to the level of a concussion, said Dr. John DiFiori, chief of the division of sports medicine at UCLA's Geffen School of Medicine. New data are suggesting that athletes who have three or more concussions are five times as likely as other people to have mild cognitive impairment, he said. There are less data about their effect on motor functions, he added. But several studies suggest that concussions cause the deposition of a protein called tau in the brain, interfering with cellular function. What types of motor functions are affected depend on where the tau protein is deposited.
"Toward the end of last season on the Fox pregame show, maybe the last six weeks, I really started forgetting things," Bradshaw wrote. "That's why I quit reciting statistics, because I couldn't remember them exactly and I stayed away from mentioning some players by name because I really wasn't sure and I didn't want to make a mistake....I know I have depression and it's a horrible disease. This memory loss has just made my depression worse."
Bradshaw wrote that he spent a weekend at the Amen Clinic, where they determined that the problem was the residue of the many concussions he had suffered as a player. Since then, he has been doing brain puzzles that he downloaded off the Internet and is buying a ping-pong table to work on his hand-eye coordination, he said. "I know what I have to do to maintain...without worrying all the time, making myself feel worse. It's not the end of the world, but it's something I have to stay on top of."
The rehabilitation programs are not unlike those used in treating stroke patients or those who have suffered brain damage in an accident. But unlike either of those problems, which are finite and limited, DiFiori said, the damage produced by concussions can be ongoing and progressive. Researchers believe that tau protein continues to be deposited in the brain over many years in concussion victims, and very little is known about the results. "We don't know the natural pathophysiology or course of that, or what to expect over time without intervention," he said. Researchers thus don't know how much benefit intervention will ultimately be able to provide.
For the record, 3:58 p.m. April 15: An earlier version of this article incorrectly spelled Dr. John DiFiori's name as DeFiore.