Potential causes of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) have eluded neuroscientists for many years. A proposed relationship between this deadly condition and contact sports has recently surprised the scientific community.
ALS is commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. It is a uniformly fatal disease that results in degeneration of the motor nerves where they originate in the spinal cord. Like its namesake, its victims gradually lose control of all motor function — including their ability to speak and breathe.
The cause of ALS is unknown, with the exception of 10% of patients in whom there is a hereditary link. Recently, a paper connecting chronic brain injuries and ALS has been published in a major scientific journal.
Chronic traumatic encephalopathy is a condition consisting of cognitive decline, personality changes and movement disorders in people who have suffered multiple brain injuries. Post-mortem examination of the brains of athletes who participate in violent contact sports including football and boxing contain a protein not normally seen in patients who suffer dementia.
Three athletes who generously donated their brains and spinal cords died of a motor neuron disease resembling ALS. Careful study of their spinal cords revealed the presence of a protein not present in patients dying of similar illnesses who did not have a history of head trauma.
Chris Nowinski is a former professional wrestler and college football player who serves as co-director of the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy.
“This study provides insight into why contact sports athletes have been diagnosed with ALS at far higher rates than the normal population,” said Nowinski, who assisted with the research.
While there are no clear conclusions to be drawn from a study of such a limited sample size, it raises many questions about the effects of repeated head trauma. Further research will hopefully provide some answers.