Junior Seau: Apparent suicide follows deaths of athletes with brain trauma

Former NFL star Junior Seau’s death by apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound follows a pattern of suicides by other high-profile football players who suffered from long-term effects of repeated brain injury.

That list of players includes Andre Waters of the Philadelphia Eagles and Terry Long of the Pittsburgh Steelers. And just last year, former Chicago Bears player Dave Duerson shot himself in the chest, but not before requesting that his brain be donated to science so that researchers could study the long-term effects caused by concussion and other repeated brain injuries. Seau also suffered a gunshot wound to the chest, rather than the head.

The former Pro Bowler, who was 43, was found by his girlfriend at his home Wednesday.

For Seau, there may have been recent warning signs that all was not well, according to the San Diego Union-Tribune. In October 2010, Seau’s car plunged 30 feet off a coastal road in Carlsbad. He reportedly told police that he had fallen asleep while driving. The accident occurred hours after he was released from jail after being arrested on suspicion of domestic violence. His 25-year-old girlfriend did not require medical treatment, and Seau was never charged in the incident.

The news comes after years of growing awareness of repeated brain trauma’s long-term effect on memory, cognitive function and even depression. “We’re all thinking about this injury differently now,” said Dr. Vernon Williams, medical director of the Kerlan-Jobe Center for Sports Neurology in Los Angeles. “This is science in evolution.”

Part of the problem with the long-term brain changes that can develop in football, boxing and other high-impact sports is that the damage is often not apparent for years, even decades, after a player’s prime, Williams said.

Though the overwhelming majority of concussion-related symptoms tend to dissipate, Williams said, symptoms of chronic traumatic encephalopathy – also known as boxer’s dementia, according to the Mayo Clinic – may emerge over time. Certain people may even be more predisposed to the condition, he said.

One of the first reported changes of such long-term damage lies in behavior, Williams said. Patients may display erratic behavior, become more emotionally irritable, even more violent.

That phase is followed by changes in cognition, memory and what’s known as executive function, the brain’s ability to problem-solve, plan, multi-task and perform other high-level tasks.

Patients with musculoskeletal injuries can also suffer from chronic pain and other issues. In some cases, the neurological damage can become physically debilitating. Muhammad Ali, the famed boxer who later developed Parkinson’s disease, is one such example.

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