Jan 29, 2015
Concussions and ALS

By Patrick Bohn

As research continues to link repeated head trauma to major health issues in the long-term, a new study shows head trauma may lead to a much deadlier consequence.
Ann McKee, MC, Associate Professor of Neurology and Pathology at the Boston University School of Medicine and her colleagues at the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy at the Boston University School of Medicine have found evidence supporting the idea that concussions may contribute to a condition called chronic traumatic encephalomyopathy (CTEM). The disease is similar to that of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), more commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.

McKee and her colleagues looked at the brains and spinal cords of three former athletes–ex-Minnesota Vikings linebacker Wally Hilgenberg, former University of Southern California linebacker Eric Scoggins, and an unidentified former boxer–who had histories of head trauma. In all three subjects, they discovered the presence of an abnormal protein called TDP-43, which is commonly associated with ALS. Both Scoggins and Hilgenberg were diagnosed with ALS.

“We are not suggesting that this is the same disease as ALS,” study researcher Robert Cantu, MD, told WebMD, “We think this is a disease that mimics ALS in terms of the spinal cord.”

Another concern related to the finding is that past patients may have been misdiagnosed with ALS. “People are being misdiagnosed clinically while they’re alive as having ALS when in fact they have a different motor-neuron disease,” Robert Stern, MD, co-director of Boston University’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy told The New York Times.

Eric Pioro, MD, PhD, director of the section for ALS and related disorders at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio, won’t go that far but says the findings show a connection between head trauma and serious health issues. “It is premature to say we may have misdiagnosed patients who were thought to have ALS,” he told WebMD. “I think that it suggests a connection between trauma and motor neuron degeneration.”

According to the ALS Association, approximately 5,600 people are diagnosed with ALS each year. The average life expectancy for someone with ALS is roughly two to five years.

The overall impact of these findings may not be realized for years, but could significantly change the way sports are played. Rob Neyer, senior writer at ESPN.com, wrote yesterday, “I won’t be surprised if, 10 years from now, the world of contact sports looks quite a bit different than it does now.”

Patrick Bohn is an Assistant Editor at Training & Conditioning.

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