Junior Seau suffered from a degenerative brain disease when he committed suicide last May. The family of the popular former NFL linebacker donated his brain to be studied by the National Institute of Health.
Neuropathologists diagnosed Seau with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a disease caused by repeated hits to the head. A team of top researchers in the country all came to the same conclusion. They found his brain looked normal but under the microscope they found deposits of a tau protein, which is the defining characteristic of CTE.
The linebacker played in the NFL for 20 seasons. The majority of his career was with the San Diego Chargers. Seau played for the Miami Dolphins and was a member of the New England Patriots before retiring in 2009.
Seau shot himself in May of 2012. The night before he died, he sent a text to his ex-wife and kids. It said, "I love you."
Seau is just one in a list of former players who committed suicide and was found to have CTE.
CBS Atlanta got a firsthand look at the research being done at the NFL Brain Bank housed at the Veterans Affairs Hospital in Bedford, MA.
Neuropathologist Dr. Ann McKee was studying the brain of an unidentified NFL player. McKee has diagnosed 34 professional football players with CTE and nine college players. It's a diagnosis that can only be made after death.
"As the player ages, even if he doesn't have any more hits to the head, the disease in some people becomes very progressive and starts really taking over most of the brain. They don't come on right away," McKee said. "That's one of the curious features of this, there's a long latened period between time a person has, experiences the head injuries, and they have to be repetitive head injuries, and there can be a period of years of doing well and then there's this slow subtle deterioration."
The Brain Bank currently has 135 brains. More than 600 living athletes signed up for the Brain Bank registry to donate their brains to be studied for CTE after death.
And for the first time, the four stages of CTE were classified as part of McKee's research released in December 2012.
The stages are based on symptoms. In stage 1, the patient may experience headaches and have trouble concentrating. During stage 2, patients may feel depressed, have a short fuse and trouble with short term memory. CTE develops in stage 3 to include problems with confusion and forgetfulness, as well as trouble with planning, organization, and poor judgement. In stage 4, the patient experiences full blown dementia, impacting all aspects of daily life.
The NFL released a statement on Thursday:
"We appreciate the Seau family's cooperation with the National Institutes of Health. The finding underscores the recognized need for additional research to accelerate a fuller understanding of CTE. The NFL, both directly and in partnership with the NIH, Centers for Disease Control and other leading organizations, is committed to supporting a wide range of independent medical and scientific research that will both address CTE and promote the long-term health and safety of athletes at all levels. The NFL clubs have already committed a $30 million research grant to the NIH, and we look forward to making decisions soon with the NFL Players Association on the investment of $100 million for medical research that is committed in the Collective Bargaining Agreement. We have work to do, and we're doing it."
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