Effects of head trauma can be felt beyond just football, boxing

Pat Grange was a healthy 27-year-old soccer player in 2010 when he was diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.  He passed away two years later.

ALS is a neurodegenerative disease that affects motor nerves at their origin in the spinal cord.  It results in profound muscle wasting and loss of motor function.  Its victims lose their ability to speak and breathe.  ALS does not affect sensory function or the ability to think clearly.

Pat Grange’s situation was unique.  He was much younger than the average patient with ALS and he had suffered repeated head trauma in the form of heading the soccer ball.  A previous study of Italian soccer players showed that they were six times more likely to develop ALS than the normal population.  

Grange’s family generously donated his brain for study to investigate a potential link between repeated head trauma and degeneration of the nervous system that appears in the form of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).  Researchers reported that based on the study of Grange’s brain there was a link.

The hallmark of CTE is the deposition of a  protein in  specific areas of the brain along with brain atrophy.  It has been most widely reported in football players and other athletes who play violent collision sports. 

At this time, the diagnosis of CTE can only be made after a person’s death.  The finding of CTE in Pat Grange is the first time it has been described in a soccer player.

Although some members of the scientific community have speculated that there is a link between heading the ball and ALS, many believe it is a premature conclusion. 

Repeated blows to the head will result in chronic symptoms and should be discouraged, especially in young athletes, but any link between heading and CTE will require more study. 

Dr. Alessi is a neurologist in Norwich and serves as an on-air contributor for ESPN.  He can be reached at agalessi@alessimd.com