Committed Suicide, Left Note Requesting Brain to be Studied
(BOSTON) – Researchers at the Boston University Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy (BU CSTE), revealed today that Dave Duerson, a former National Football League (NFL) player who committed suicide in February at age 50, was suffering from a moderately advanced case of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), a neurodegenerative disease linked to repeated brain trauma.
Duerson played safety in the National Football League (NFL) for 11 seasons, for the Chicago Bears, New York Giants and Phoenix Cardinals. He was named to four Pro Bowls and won two Super Bowls, with the Bears in 1986 and the Giants in 1991.
Duerson was diagnosed with CTE by neuropathologist and BU CSTE co-director Ann McKee, MD, director of the largest CTE “brain bank” in the world, located at the Bedford VA Medical Center. CTE can only be diagnosed by examining brain tissue post-mortem. Duerson is the 14th of 15 former NFL players studied at the VA CSTE Brain Bank to be diagnosed with CTE. “Mr. Duerson was suffering from moderately advanced CTE; stage 3 of 4. The pathology was severe in areas of the brain that influence impulse control, inhibition, emotion and. Memory,” said Dr. McKee.
Duerson committed suicide at home on Feb. 17, 2011. He left a note and text message asking for his brain to be studied, which read, “Please, see that my brain is given to the NFL’s Brain Bank.” He expressed concern to friends and loved ones that he was suffering from CTE, and shot himself in the chest, presumably to preserve his brain for study. The NFL provides financial support in the form of a $1 million unrestricted gift to the CSTE, and also encourages players and families to participate in BU CSTE research, making the VA CSTE Brain Bank the NFL’s de facto brain bank.
In a statement from the Duerson family, they said, “It is with mixed emotions that we receive the research results from Boston University School of Medicine and the VA CSTE Brain Bank. The loss of David as a father, a friend, and a brother has been difficult. But we rejoice in the hope that this research can lead to better treatment and care for those with CTE.”
Chris Nowinski, CSTE co-director and president of Sports Legacy Institute, said, “We hope to honor Mr. Duerson’s memory by using what we have learned to play sports more safely.” Robert Stern, PhD, CSTE co-director added, “It does not help our research or the mission of the CSTE for individuals to take their own lives because they fear they have CTE. There are many organizations available to help those in despair, and ongoing CTE research provides hope that there will be available treatments for the disease soon.”
Duerson experienced worsening symptoms over the several years prior to his death, complaining of problems with memory, headaches, vision, spelling, attention, and impulse control. He graduated from the University of Notre Dame, where he was captain of the football team, and earned a certificate from an executive program at Harvard Business School. He was named the 1987 NFL Man of the Year, which is given in recognition of volunteer and charity work as well as excellence on the field, and served on the benefits board of the NFL Players Association. He ran several successful food distribution businesses after his football career, but ended up losing the business through bankruptcy and was deeply in debt when he died.
The VA CSTE Brain Bank contains the brains of more than 70 athletes and military veterans. Half of the athletes are football players, and 14 cases are military veterans. More than 40 of the 50 completed examinations have been positive for CTE, including college and high school football players, hockey players, professional wrestlers and boxers. There are approximately 400 athletes are part of the BU CSTE Brain Research and Donation Registry, a longitudinal study of brain trauma, including more than 100 current and former NFL players.
CTE, originally referred to as “dementia pugilistica” because it was believed to only affect boxers, is a progressive brain disease believed to be caused by repetitive trauma to the brain, including concussions or subconcussive blows. However, it is likely that there are other not-yet-discovered factors, such as genetic predisposition, that put certain individuals at greater risk of developing this neurodegenerative disease. Robert Cantu, MD, CSTE co-director stated, “It is not yet known how common CTE is. It cannot be diagnosed during life and there are no known treatments. Our group and other researchers are actively investigating answers to these important questions.”
CTE is characterized by deposits of an abnormal protein called tau in the form of neurofibrillary tangles, glial tangles, and neuropil threads throughout the brain and the presence of another protein – sometimes associated with motor neuron disease – known as TDP-43. These abnormal proteins are associated with the impaired functioning and eventual death of brain cells. Early on, CTE sufferers may display symptoms such as memory impairment, emotional instability, erratic behavior, depression, and problems with impulse control. CTE may eventually progress to full-blown dementia. Although similar to Alzheimer’s disease, CTE is pathologically distinct, and is an entirely preventable cause of dementia.
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