By Colin White-Dzuro
On February 17, 2011, ex-Chicago Bears safety Dave Duerson commit suicide via gunshot wound to the chest. In the final note to his family, Duerson requested that his brain be donated to Boston University, where they are conducting research into various concussion-related diseases. Months later, neurologists confirmed that the hard-hitting safety suffered from Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, a degenerative neurological disease that is a precursor to dementia and is heavily linked to concussions. Unfortunately, Duerson isn’t the only athlete to have been debilitated from receiving multiple concussions. Junior Seau, Terry Long, Ray Easterling, and Tom McHale are all football players whose brains have tested positive for dementia post-mortem, diagnosed after their deaths via suicide or reckless behavior (Garcia-Roberts, 2012). In a sad turn, the same tough play and fearless attitude that immortalized them to fans and teammates alike would be the underlying cause of their deaths.
A concussion is the most common type of traumatic brain injury, and is often defined as a brain injury brought on by a sudden blow to the head. When the human head is struck with force, the brain can move inside of the skull. If trauma to the head is so great that it causes the brain to hit the inner skull, it is called a concussion. Symptoms of a concussion vary greatly on a case-to-case basis, and are known to include headaches, nausea, memory loss, emotional swings, loss of appetite, and/or fatigue (Sports Concussion Institute, 2012). While a single concussion in itself isn’t often too concerning (depending on its severity), the biggest trouble lies in receiving multiple concussions in a lifetime, which can severely damage brain tissue and seriously alter a human’s brain function.
In an effort to determine the effect of concussions on long-term mental disorders like depression, researchers at University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill compared depression diagnoses in athletes who have experienced at least multiple concussions versus athletes who have experienced none. They discovered that the “9-year risk” for having depressive episodes increased with the number of concussions, from 3.0% in the “0 concussions” group to 26.8% in the “10-100 concussions” group. Their data overwhelmingly supports the idea that those who have had concussions are at a much higher risk for depression than those who have had no concussions (Kerr, Marshall, Harding, & Guskiewicz, 2012). Furthermore, researchers have noted that multiple mild concussions are associated with a high risk of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), which results in a progressive decline of memory and cognition, suicidal behavior, impulse control, aggressiveness, and can lead to Parkinson’s Disease (Stern, 2011, Shively, Scher, Perl, & Diaz-Arrastia, 2012).
Concussions have also shown to negatively impact cognitive and motor function. Studies conducted at the University of Montreal looked at retired athletes in their late 50s/early 60s and separated them into two groups: those with a history of concussions and those without a history of concussions. Within those groups, various tests were employed to assess motor cortex excitability. Their results showed that the former athletes with a history of concussions had both lower performances on neuropsychological tests of episodic memory and response inhibition as well as significant bradykinesia (reduced movement velocity) (De Beaumont, Thoret, Mongeon, Messier, Leclerc, Tremblay, Ellemberg, Lassonde, 2009). A similar study performed at the University of Western Ontario found that Long-Evans rats who were given 1 or more mild concussions displayed noticeable short-term cognitive impairment, and those rats who were given multiple mild concussions showed significantly worse short- and long-term cognitive impairment. Furthermore, those rats who were given 5 mild concussions showed increased anxiety- and depression-like behaviors (Shultz, Bao, Omana, Chiu, Brown, & Cain, 2012).
The evidence suggesting that concussions can be debilitating towards long-term health is staggering and keeps mounting everyday, forcing society to take notice. Fortunately, athletics programs worldwide are beginning to introduce policies in order to ensure that those who suffer from a concussion receive proper treatment and recovery time to allow for a full recovery. These policies will protect both young children and current athletes from the long-term dangers of concussions and prevent more unnecessary deaths. It’s a legacy that men like Junior Seau and Dave Duerson can be proud of.