Football and Brain

In 2016 HBO’s Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel reported on the occurrence of brain damage in pee-wee through high school football players. Bottom line from the show, you don’t have to wait to be a professional football player or even be good enough to make it in the NFL before the start of brain damage associated with playing football. If that was not enough, the wife of perhaps the greatest quarterback in the history of football (Tom Brady) reported he had suffered a concussion in the 2016-2017 season. She hoped he would retire. Then in a recent New York Times article we learn that an examination of Aaron Hernandez’s brain showed he had a severe case of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). Brain damage associated with CTE does not make one a killer. However, the sport of football does take large strong men and teaches them how to perform in a violent and aggressive sport. There is now overwhelming evidence that football is a sport where frequent blows to the head are associated with brain damage. It is possible that the brain damage associated with CTE could exacerbate impulsive and aggressive behavior. The July 25, 2017 issue of the New York Times provided a summary of an article published in The Journal of the American Medical Association by Dr. Ann McKee and colleagues (Mez J. et al. 2017) on CTE in 202 football players of which 111 had been players in the National Football League (NFL).

Mez and colleagues set out to determine the incidence of neuropathology and clinical pathology in deceased American football players. They examined the brains of 202 deceased players ranging from pre-high school players to NFL players. In general, as the level of play increased the level of neuropathology and diagnosis of CTE increased. For players who died in 2014 or later, informant reports on behavior, mood and cognitive symptoms of dementia were obtained. In general, as the neuropathological symptoms of CTE increased the symptoms of impaired behavioral and mood increased as did the likelihood of dementia. In considering these finding it is necessary to note that this was a sample of convenience. That is, the sample was not random, but was made up of brains from individuals or family members who volunteered their brains for examination. Regardless, the high incidences of neuropathology and behavioral/dementia symptoms in this nonrandom sample strongly suggest an association with playing football.

To paraphrase Waylon and Willie, ’Mammas, don’t let your babies grow up to be football players’

Mez, J., et al. (2017). Clinicopathological evaluation of chronic traumatic encephalopathy in players of American football. JAMA. 318(4):360-370.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *