Junior Seau Suffered Brain Disease

Brain of Junior Seau revealed evidence of CTE brain disease from multiple hits to head

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

(RxWiki News) Star NFL linebacker Junior Seau's suicide last year stunned the nation. Now scientists have found he suffered from a brain disease probably caused by a career of hits to his head.

The 43-year-old shot himself in the chest last May, leaving some to speculate that he had intentionally preserved his brain to be studied. His family donated his brain to the National Institutes of Health for their research on traumatic brain injury and football players.

The researchers, led by Russell Lonser, MD, chairman of the department of neurological surgery at Ohio State University, diagnosed chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in the brain without knowing it belong to Seau.

"Suicide is never the answer, call 1-800-273-TALK."

This disease is usually caused by multiple hits to the head, though not necessarily only ones resulting in concussion.

CTE has been linked by research to depression, forgetfulness, early-onset dementia and sometimes suicidal thoughts. However, it cannot be diagnosed until after death because it requires looking at the brain tissue through microscopes.

Seau's family reported the findings of CTE in his brain to ABC News and ESPN. According to ESPN, three independent neuropathologists not associated with the NIH conducted their own analysis of three tissue samples: one from Seau, one from an Alzheimer's patient and one from a person with no history of brain disease.

The three unanimously, like the two NIH researchers, concluded his brain contained evidence of CTE. The most recognizable evidence was clusters in his brain of the protein tau, which basically "strangles" brain cells.

The NIH also found "a very small region in the left frontal lobe of the brain with evidence of scarring that is consistent with a small, old, traumatic brain injury," according to an NIH statement.

"The type of findings seen in Mr. Seau’s brain have been recently reported in autopsies of individuals with exposure to repetitive head injury, including professional and amateur athletes who played contact sports, individuals with multiple concussions, and veterans exposed to blast injury and other trauma," the NIH stated.

Daniel Clearfield, DO, a sports medicine doctor at the Ben Hogan Bone & Joint Institute in Fort Worth, Texas, and a dailyRx expert, noted when Seau first died that there would likely be evidence of CTE found during Seau's autopsy, so he did not find these results surprising.

He said he recently heard discussions in the media about improving helmet safety, but he thinks that's insufficient.

"What is needed is a culture shift of how the game is played, how the coaches and players see the objective of this sport as being not to harm your opponent but to stop them in a manner that is safe for all participating individuals," Dr. Clearfield said.

The news networks reported that Seau had never been diagnosed with a concussion. However, his ex-wife Gina Seau said he had often complained about symptoms related to concussions after getting repeated hits to his head.

Seau played 20 seasons in the NFL, mostly for his 13 seasons with the San Diego Chargers, followed by three seasons with the Miami Dolphins and four seasons with the New England Patriots. He retired in 2010, two years before taking his life.

Many people mistakenly believe that concussions are the primary concern related to head injuries for football players. However, "subconcussive" hits, which are hard hits that don't cause a concussion, can also damage the brain over time.

This damage builds up and can lead to the deterioration that becomes CTE. Boxers have been known to suffer CTE for years, but the disease was not found in football players until 2005.

ESPN reported that Boston University researchers have recently identified 50 former football players as having CTE; this includes 33 former NFL players.

ESPN and ABC News also reported about 4,000 retired players have filed lawsuits against the NFL for failing to protect them from brain injury.

Photo of Junior Seau is credited to JJ Hall.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
January 10, 2013
Last Updated:
January 15, 2013