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CTE Found in Dead College Football Player

First evidence of brain disease in athlete with no concussions

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Read more about BU’s research on CTE and its effects on changes in the NFL and youthsports here.

In April, University of Pennsylvania offensive lineman Owen Thomas complained to his parents that he was feeling stressed, worried that he would fail some of his college courses. The next day, Thomas, who had just been named captain of Penn’s football team, was found dead in his apartment, where he had hanged himself. His heartbroken family and friends were baffled. They had known him as “vibrant, a leader, and a problem-solver.”

The 21-year-old junior, and his two brothers, had played football since childhood. Two weeks ago, Thomas was diagnosed, postmortem, with mild chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), an Alzheimer’s-like brain disease associated with repetitive head trauma and seen, most notably, among a number of former National Football League players, at least two of whom took their own lives.

The diagnosis was made by Ann McKee, a School of Medicine associate professor of neurology and pathology and one of four codirectors of BU’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy (CSTE), who is also director of neuropathology at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center, in Bedford, Mass. It was independently confirmed by neuropathologist Daniel Perl, of Mount Sinai Medical Center, in New York.McKee and other BU researchers emphasize that it’s impossible to definitively link Thomas’ suicide to CTE, but they note a pattern of suicide and suicidal behavior in CTE victims, such as NFL stars Andre Waters and Terry Long.

“I knew there was a missing piece,” says Thomas’ mother, the Rev. Katherine Brearley, of Allentown, Pa. “No one has given me even a hint of an explanation why Owen, at the drop of a hat, would kill himself. It’s out of all proportion and totally out of his character.”

Top row: Brain sections showing dense tau protein deposition in multiple areas of frontal cortex (boxes).Bottom row: Microscopic images showing large numbers of tau-containing neurofibrillary tangles (dark brown spots) in the areas of damage.

Thomas’ diagnosis is unique in two ways: he is the first active college athlete to be found with the disease, and unlike other known victims of CTE, he was never diagnosed with a concussion. However, Thomas had been a lineman and a linebacker, positions that typically involve multiple hits to the head during every game and practice, with estimates of approximately 1,000 hits per season or more. As part of its research, the CSTE team has been studying the role of subconcussive hits in the development of CTE.

CTE, believed to be caused by repeated jolts to the head, is characterized by the buildup in the brain of the toxic protein tau, which impairs normal brain functions and eventually kills brain cells. Early symptoms, which may not become evident for years, include memory impairment, emotional instability, erratic behavior, depression, and problems with impulse control. Dementia waits in the wings.

“This finding emphasizes that the early stages of this disease can start at young ages even in the absence of well-documented concussions,” says McKee. “It’s more evidence that we urgently need more research on CTE to fully understand the severity and frequency of brain trauma that can trigger this response, so that we can implement rule and equipment changes to protect our athletes.”

Thomas joins a growing list of active and retired football players, and other contact sport athletes, who have been diagnosed with CTE after their deaths. McKee has found CTE in 12 of 13 former professional football players, as well as in amateur football players, professional boxers, and hockey players.

“We will never truly know what led Owen to take his own life,” Brearley says. “However, knowing that he had a brain disease that could have had an impact on his emotional state, cognitive functioning, and impulse control brings us some solace.”

CSTE codirector Robert Cantu, a MED clinical professor of neurosurgery, who wrote the original return-to-play guidelines for concussions in the 1980s, says brain trauma guidelines similar to the pitch-count regulations now used in Little League baseball need to be developed for youth football, which is played by one in eight boys in America. A number of states, including Massachusetts, have adopted legislation mandating return-to-play rules and brain trauma education for all coaches, athletes, and parents.

“We count the pitches of every baseball player to ensure a small number do not develop shoulder and elbow problems,” Cantu says, “and yet we don’t count how often children get hit in the head playing football, even though it can lead to early dementia or possibly depression and suicide years later.”

Brearley says she had never heard of the progressive brain disease when former college lineman and retired professional wrestler Christopher Nowinski, another CSTE codirector, called to see if the family would be willing to donate their son’s brain. Brearley agreed, but didn’t think they’d find anything.

“I’m astounded,” she says. “We set off down this path of playing football without realizing the risks he was putting himself in. You don’t send someone back in with a bone injury. If I’d even had a clue that he was risking his brain, I’d have said absolutely not. It’s so painful to think about.”

In the wake of their son’s death, Owen Thomas’ father, the Rev. Tom Thomas, who himself played college football, signed up with CSTE’s research registry, run by codirector Robert Stern, which tracks former players over their lifetime and will study their brains and spinal cords upon death. “If Owen hadn’t taken his life now,” Thomas says, “I’m concerned by how his life would have turned out given the progressive nature of CTE.”

Brearley and Thomas are now advocating for greater awareness among coaches, trainers, and parents, particularly at the college level.

“Owen was a leader and a wonderful person,” Brearley says. “It would be an honor if he is able to trigger changes in college football practices. Our hope is that the Ivy League schools will step up and play a leadership role in this issue.”

Caleb Daniloff can be reached at cdanilof@bu.edu. Devin Hahn can be reached at dhahn@bu.edu and Alan Wong at alanwong@bu.edu.

19 Comments

19 Comments on CTE Found in Dead College Football Player

  • Paula Quatromoni on 09.14.2010 at 6:40 am

    Great reporting!

    Thanks Caleb for an excellent reporting job on a very important story. Raising awareness is critical. Well done, and a very real “cause for pause” for athletes, families and coaches.

  • David M. on 09.14.2010 at 8:46 am

    Interesting and scary

    I don’t think I’d let my child play contact sports after this discovery.

  • Anonymous on 09.14.2010 at 2:14 pm

    Thank you!

    A big thank you to Owen’s family for donating his brain for evaluation. I have been following the work of CSTE, and they have some very important findings that athletes at all levels, as well as those around them, need to pay attention to.

  • Anonymous on 09.14.2010 at 4:27 pm

    CTE

    This is such a critical finding. But football is so deeply entrenched in our schools. There should be more people aware of this, pushing to change how the game is played (not likely) or better equipment to protect the brain (which I’m not sure is possible.)

  • cdanilof on 09.14.2010 at 4:38 pm

    Thanks for presenting this story so sensitively and clearly. The video clip really helped bring it to life.

  • Anonymous on 09.14.2010 at 5:41 pm

    I have posted this to my Facebook page and will make sure the people I know with football-playing children will see it.

  • Anonymous on 09.15.2010 at 9:46 am

    Brain Trauma

    Please, BU, do not limit the scope of your research to youngsters who play sports.
    My dynamic sister who had just received her BSN, and was on her way to her master’s degree in nursing hung herself a year ago at the age of 50.
    She had been a victim of repeated physical abuse as a child, and, after reading your article, was wondering if it was possible she suffered brain tramua, in addition to the emotional stress of her childhood, that lead to her suicide.

  • Anonymous on 09.16.2010 at 1:15 pm

    Imperative work

    ‘Big thank you’ to Owen’s family, Caleb Daniloff, Devin Hahn, Alan Wong, Dr. McKee, Christopher Nowinski, Dr. Cantu and the entire BU team of Doctors and Researchers. Head trauma (be it from sports or abuse – respectively) is a horrible thing! It is a hidden disease with little research which means so many of our loved ones have suffered quietly for so long. For too long! They do not only have diseases, but can not know what is wrong with them. I implore you all, please, continue this imperative work.

  • Anonymous on 09.18.2010 at 6:13 pm

    Agreed with the comment above. Thank you for reporting this so sensitively and clearly.
    Rest in peace, Owen, we love and miss you.

  • Anonymous on 09.19.2010 at 2:58 pm

    Besides the ipothesis before mentioned, C.T.E. might be caused by a fungy that penetrates through the ears producing neurotoxins and reducing brain functioning. Those people affected, who are also exposed to micro-head traumas might be exponentially at risk of the fungi and the related C.T.E. propagation.
    B.s., G.D.,
    M.Negroni – Boston U

  • Anonymous on 09.19.2010 at 6:01 pm

    I’m a Senior in High School and have had seven concussions from playing soccer. Its scary to think that something like this could result from even small jolts to the head. Now I know why my doctor, who coincidentley is Dr. Cantu, didn’t clear me to play soccer my Senior season.

  • Anonymous on 09.21.2010 at 11:31 am

    McKinley

    They should try to get the brain of Kenny McKinley, his story is starting to sound eerily similar to Owen’s

  • thanks on 01.27.2011 at 1:06 pm

    thanks Caleb, well done

  • NYOKA CHANDLER on 12.12.2011 at 8:51 pm

    As much as I love to watch my grandkids play football. This scares the crap out of me. I do not want their brains destroyed by this terrible jolting of the brain. My little great nephew, which I think of as my grandson, becsuae I cared for him from the time he camr home from hospital unti he was 2 years old. I love him sooo much. He lives in Florida and I have made trips from Alabama just to watch him play football. He is only 5 years old, and so small. His helmet did not fit him reight, it moved up and down , and they took out the lining and it still just moved up and down,. I know he is to little to play football anyway. Now I am scared to death he will have brain damage.

  • thank you on 12.17.2011 at 5:06 pm

    thanks Caleb, well done

  • Frank on 04.22.2012 at 3:34 pm

    It’s a tragedy that this is happening, but as a former football player and now working in the medical field, it is just nearly impossible to protect the brain itself. It is encased in it’s own protective cavity (the skull) a helmet cannot and will not prevent the brain from bouncing around in the skull. It just doesn’t work that way. Helmets today offer little more protection than the old leather helmets. They protect the skull and scalp, but not the brain. Sorry, but those are the facts – that’s how we are built.

    • Thea Williams on 05.15.2012 at 1:01 pm

      Good point! My daughter’s father was involved in a motorcycle accident 2 year ago, and was wearing a helmet at the time. He sustained a lot of other injuries but survived. However, he has since exhibited some strange behavior–namely amnesia about what transpired in our former relationship, and made statements about me to MY family that were totally untrue. My mother asked me if he had a head injury when he had his accident, and I told her he was wearing a helmet–but, in light of what happens to the brain inside the skull even with a helmet on, it’s highly possible he DID have a head injury–that may explain his complete non-recollection of the facts, and his previous phone message he left for our daughter; I don’t know what he said, but whatever it was, it got my daughter so upset I had his phone number blocked so he couldn’t get calls through to us. I can’t think of anything else that would cause him to behave like this.

  • Jay Corry on 05.03.2012 at 10:43 am

    BU, Is the effects of repeatedly heading a SOCCER ball being studied for CTE? I would think that would be a large source for study material.

  • Thea Williams on 05.15.2012 at 12:53 pm

    This is just another sad story of how football-related head injuries can take their toll. As sad as it is that he committed suicide, given the progressive nature of CTE, his behavior would have gotten worse too–and that would have been difficult for his family and friends to endure. It’s just sad what CTE does to people’s brains, and even sadder that some people in the world of athletics want to deny the existence of it and the link between CTE and sports-related concussions.

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