Duerson’s brain was damaged, study shows
For the family of Dave Duerson, the announcement Monday that scientists found signs of damage in his brain may shed some light on the Chicago Bears star’s erratic behavior.
But for the National Football League, the findings add to questions about whether the ultimate cost of playing the sport could be higher than anyone imagined and whether the NFL should do more to protect its players.
Before shooting himself in the heart in February at age 50, Duerson expressed the wish that his brain be studied for signs of disease. On Monday, scientists at Boston University who examined Duerson’s brain tissue said he suffered from a “moderately advanced” case of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease associated with repeated blows to the head.
His brain showed pronounced changes in the frontal cortex amygdala and the hippocampus, which control judgment, inhibition, impulse, mood control and memory, said Dr. Ann McKee, a co-director of the Center for Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy at the Boston University School of Medicine and director of the Bedford VA CSTE Brain Bank.
“When you look at it microscopically, it’s undisputable,” said McKee, who has detected CTE in approximately 40 of the 50 brains she has examined, a pool that includes athletes and military veterans.
Known for his aggressive and hard-hitting defense, Duerson is the 14th of 15 former NFL players studied at the brain bank to be diagnosed with CTE. Overall, the condition has been found in more than two dozen deceased professional football players.
In a statement released Monday, the NFL expressed sympathy to the Duerson family and said it hoped the findings would “contribute more to the understanding of CTE” and that it would continue to help ensure that concussions are properly treated in the NFL. The league also said it’s working to expand the support system for retired players and advocating laws to help better protect young athletes in any sport who suffer concussions.
The NFL recently has been adopting rules and policies related to head injuries, a move that followed years of denial and a growing number of reports of retired players diagnosed with dementia and other cognitive problems.
In April 2010, the NFL gave the Boston center a $1 million unrestricted research grant. The NFL and the NFL Players Association have been encouraging players to donate and have facilitated brain donations.
“I think the NFL has taken marvelous steps forward, especially in 2010,” said center co-director Robert Stern. “But I do think there is so much more to be learned and understood, that we are just beginning to climb the mountain that will lead to more effective treatments, recognition of people living with it and a cure.”
After a distinguished football career that included two Super Bowl rings, four straight Pro Bowl selections and the NFL’s Humanitarian of the Year award, Duerson ran a successful business in the food-service industry and was a trustee on the benefits board for the NFL Players Association.
Overall, his health was excellent, Stern said. “He had no history of depression, no psychiatric problems, no history of substance abuse.”
But starting in 2007, he began experiencing work and financial difficulties. In a message he left loved ones before his death, Duerson wrote about his failed business deals and family problems, about seeing stars, blurry vision and having difficulty spelling simple words.
Family, financial and behavioral problems all can be symptoms of CTE.
“My father was a man of many accomplishments, both on and off the field,” Duerson’s son Tregg said Monday. “With these came many battles, but despite the highs and lows of life, he was strong and showed courage and compassion for others. It’s my greatest hope that his death will not be in vain and through research his legacy will live on so others won’t have to suffer in the same way.”
Duerson began playing football at age 8. His family said he suffered from at least 10 known concussions in his NFL career, Stern said. Several resulted in a loss of consciousness, but Stern said Duerson wasn’t hospitalized for any of them.
It isn’t known if Duerson had a history of brain trauma prior to his NFL career, but he had no known trauma since retiring from football. He also had strongly implied that football might have contributed to his death.
“He had a variety of symptoms that were entirely consistent with CTE in the literature and what our findings have been,” Stern said. “He complained of headaches. Most important, he had worsening short-term memory problems and a growing problem with impulse control. He had a short fuse, a growing temper and abusiveness.”
Hall of Fame cornerback Mike Haynes, who has agreed to donate his brain after his death, said the findings “support the relevance and importance of having appropriate protocols in place to detect if a person is concussed.”
“Dave was one of the more aggressive defenders to have ever played. However, he was also a very intelligent guy,” Haynes said. “If he had been educated about the risks associated with playing through mild traumatic brain injury, I’m sure he would have done things differently. Education is key.”
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