Three Active NFL Pro Bowl Players To Donate Brains To Research

in Health & Medicine, News Releases, School of Medicine
September 14th, 2009

Contact: Gina M. Digravio, 617-638-8491 | gina.digravio@bmc.org

(BOSTON) – The Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy (CSTE) at Boston University School of Medicine (BUSM) announced today that three active National Football League Pro Bowl players have pledged to join the CSTE Brain Donation Registry. The players include: Matt Birk, Baltimore Ravens; Lofa Tatupu, Seattle Seahawks; and Sean Morey, Arizona Cardinals. These players have decided to donate their brain and spinal cord tissue to the CSTE upon death so that researchers can better understand the effects of trauma on the brain and spinal cord.

Brain trauma in sports is increasingly seen as a health crisis due to the discovery of a neurodegenerative disease called Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) in a number of recently deceased athletes. Over the past several years, CTE was found in ten deceased athletes including professional football players, boxers, a professional wrestler, and an 18 year-old high school athlete. Only one athlete tested for CTE during that time did not have the disease.

Robert Cantu, MD, a leading sports concussion expert and clinical professor of neurosurgery at BUSM said, “CTE is the only fully preventable cause of dementia. By studying large numbers of athletes throughout their lives, as well as examining brain tissue through our expanding CSTE brain bank, we will be able to determine the specific risk factors for CTE and potentially develop effective treatments. The research will foster education and allow meaningful guidelines to be implemented at all levels of athletic participation.”

The co-directors of the BUSM CSTE include Cantu, Chris Nowinski, Ann McKee, MD, and Robert Stern, PhD. They published research findings on CTE in athletes in the July issue of the Journal of Neuropathology and Experimental Neurology (2009, vol.68¸ pp. 709-735). McKee also recently presented these findings to the NFL Mild Traumatic Brain Injury Committee and NFL Players Association.

Birk, Tatupu, and Morey are the first active NFL players to join more than 150 former athletes, including 40 retired NFL players, in the CSTE Brain Donation Registry. Through enrolling in the C.O.N.T.A.C.T. research program (Consent to Offer Neural Tissue of Athletes with Concussive Trauma), these athletes will be interviewed annually by phone throughout their lives and, upon death, their brain tissue will be examined by the CSTE. This prospective approach with allow the researchers to examine the relationship between clinical symptoms and pathology for the first time

Arizona Cardinals receiver and special teams player Sean Morey said, “As an active NFL player, I believe it is critical to support all the research being done to better understand the potential long term risks associated with brain injuries in the NFL and football at all levels. One of the most profound actions I can take personally is to donate my brain to help ensure the safety and welfare of active, retired, and future athletes for decades to come.”

According to Baltimore Ravens star center Matt Birk, “The science is clear that CTE is a threat to the health and well-being of all contact sports athletes. I would like to do my part to raise awareness and help the research advance toward treatment and an eventual cure.” Birk, who is also making a financial contribution to the non-profit Sports Legacy Institute (SLI), went on to say, “I consider my financial donation to be an investment in my future, the future of my friends that have played football with me, and the future of all of those children playing the game today.”

CSTE’s research reveals that the need for concussion education for youth sports is more urgent than ever. In June, Oregon became the first state to mandate concussion education for youth sports coaches, passing “Max’s Law”, a bill requiring coaches to be trained annually to recognize concussion symptoms and provide appropriate medical treatment. On Tuesday, September 15 a similar bill will be heard by the Joint Committee on Public Health in the Massachusetts State Legislature. Senate bill 796, sponsored by Senator Steven Baddour, mandates a sports concussion safety program for coaches, trainers, and volunteers for schools in the Commonwealth. CSTE’s Cantu and Nowinski will be testifying at Tuesday’s hearing.

Referring to today’s announcement by Birk, Tatupu, and Morey, SLI co-founder and president, Nowinski said, “These active NFL players have admirably ignored concerns held by many athletes that by participating in this research, they could be perceived as having a concussion history that could negatively affect their career and contract negotiations.”

CTE, originally referred to as “dementia pugilistica” because it was believed to only affect boxers, is a progressive neurodegenerative disease caused by repetitive trauma to the brain. It is characterized by the build-up of a toxic protein called tau in the form of neurofibrillary tangles (NFTs) and neuropil threads (NTs) throughout the brain. The abnormal protein initially impairs the normal functioning of the brain and eventually kills brain cells. Early on, CTE sufferers may display clinical symptoms such as memory impairment, emotional instability, erratic behavior, depression and problems with impulse control. However, CTE eventually progresses to full-blown dementia. Although similar to Alzheimer’s disease, CTE is an entirely distinct disease.

Matt Birk was voted into six Pro Bowls at center during his 11 seasons with the Minnesota Vikings. A Harvard graduate, Birk signed with the Baltimore Ravens in 2009 and is expected to start at center this season.

Lofa Tatupu was voted into the Pro Bowl in his first three seasons in the NFL, one of only two Seattle Seahawks ever to earn the prestigious honor. The former USC star is entering his fifth season with the Seahawks as one of the top linebackers in football.

Sean Morey was recently voted into his first Pro Bowl in 2008 as a Special Teams Player with the Arizona Cardinals. The Brown University honors graduate and Superbowl XL Champion is entering his tenth season in the NFL. He is also a member of the NFL Players Association’s Player Safety and Welfare Committee.

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The CSTE was created in 2008 as a collaborative venture between Boston University School of Medicine (BUSM) and Sports Legacy Institute (SLI). The mission of the CSTE is to conduct state-of-the-art research of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, including its neuropathology and pathogenesis, the clinical presentation and course, the genetics and other risk factors for CTE, and ways of preventing and treating this cause of dementia.

Sports Legacy Institute is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation founded in 2007 to solve the sports concussion crisis. SLI is dedicated to education, prevention, treatment, and research on the effects of concussions and other brain injuries in athletes and the military. SLI partnered with Boston University School of Medicine to form the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy in 2008.

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