See “Most and Least Liked NFL Players” photo galleries below.
As the families of Jovan Belcher and Kassandra Perkins try to piece together what happened before this weekend’s tragic events, medical experts are conducting their own research into what may have gone on in his brain to cause his actions.
Doctors believe that more football players are succumbing to a complicated condition known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy or CTE.
“Every time something like a suicide happens, I do worry about the status of an individual’s brain because brain trauma can change people,” said Chris Nowinski, co-director of the Center of the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy (CSTE) at Boston University School of Medicine.
“No brain disease could ever explain a single act. However, we should be mindful and respectful of what brain trauma can do,” Nowinski pointed out.
A study recently published in the journal Brain added further support to the prevalence of CTE among football players.
The research examined brain tissue of 85 people including 35 professional athletes posthumously. Study results found that 34 of the athletes showed signs of CTE. Doctors explained that the disease begins its course when a player experiences repeated blows to the brain without allowing each injury to heal properly. As a person consecutively gets injured damage begins to form a dense, abnormal protein known as tau.
When the disease progresses it is known to lead to symptoms such as rage, aggression, paranoia and suicidal thoughts.
Experts said that it becomes difficult to find an explanation when NFL players such as Dave Duerson, Shane Dronett and Ray Easterling take their own lives.
“It’s a sad statement that we immediately jump to a premature conclusions that CTE is the underlying cause of such a complex and dreadful situation” said Dr. Robert Stern, co-founder of the CSTE. “Suicide and homicide are such incredibly multifactorial behaviors that CTE is one of countless potential variables that could go into it.”
Some medical experts believe there are too many cases where CTE does not apply since many players and military members who have experienced head injuries do not necessarily suffer from the condition.
“There are a lot of reasons people commit suicide and commit murder,” said David Hovda, director of the UCLA Brain Injury Research Center. He questions the semantics behind defining CTE on the behavior alone. “I’m not sure we can tag CTE onto this.”
Seventeen of the study participants including athletes and military members showed no signs of CTE. However, Nowinksi noted that many of them may have experienced less severe injuries or were not exposed to repetitive blows.
“The good news is it’s clear that a couple of concussions doesn’t always lead to CTE and we hope it’s rare,” Nowinski said. “However, when you get to the people in the database who took more than ten years of repetitive brain trauma, nearly all of them have CTE.”
The study reported that CTE can spread over time throughout several parts of the brain and into the spinal cord.
“Early on, it only involves very discrete small lesions around the brain and as it progresses, more and more brain tissue gets destroyed,” Stern said. “It is only in the more severe stages that we see full-blown dementia.
CTE symptoms become even more debilitating as it progresses through stages. For example, in Stage 1 a person may experience severe headaches and have trouble concentrating. When a person reaches Stage 4 the anger and aggression problems become more apparent.
Although there is no easy explanation for this weekend’s tragedy, there is widespread understanding about the toll head traumas can take on a person.
“It is wrong to focus on the suicides,” said Nowinski. “The takeaway should be that brain trauma can unlock the door to a whole lot of terrible things and we have a lot of work ahead of us to both learn how to treat (CTE) and to prevent it in the next generation.”