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Sports-Related Head Trauma Linked to Lou Gehrig’s-Like Disease

Sports-Related Head Trauma Linked to Lou Gehrig’s Disease
Lou Gehrig, seen here, who played baseball for the New York Yankees, died in 1941 at age 37 of ALS. Photographer: Pictorial Parade/Getty Images

Aug. 18 (Bloomberg) -- Repeated head trauma from playing sports such as football and rugby is linked to the development of a new neurological disorder similar to Lou Gehrig’s disease, according to U.S. researchers.

Scientists from the Boston University School of Medicine and the Department of Veterans Affairs made the discovery after examining the brains and spinal cords of 12 athletes. The findings will be published in the September edition of the Journal of Neuropathology and Experimental Neurology.

Three of the 12 athletes, including former professional football players Wally Hilgenberg and Eric Scoggins, developed motor neuron disease later in life. While the three were diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, better known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, they probably had a similar illness never before described in medical literature, the researchers wrote. Lou Gehrig himself may have had this disease, known as chronic traumatic encephalomyopathy, they said.

“We’re hopeful that this new work may shed light on potentially exciting new possibilities for biomarker and therapy development,” said Steve Perrin, chief executive officer of the ALS Therapy Development Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

The new illness, dubbed CTEM, is distinct from ALS, which causes muscle tissue to waste away. CTEM is likely caused by repetitive head trauma such as that experienced by athletes in contact sports, the researchers said.

No Known Cause

Most cases of ALS, which affects about 30,000 Americans, have no known cause. Previous research has shown a link between head trauma and ALS, including a study of Italian soccer players that found the incidence of ALS was 6.5 times higher than in the general population. American football players and war veterans also have higher rates of ALS, studies show.

Gehrig, who played baseball for the New York Yankees, died in 1941 at age 37 of ALS. He had played football while at Columbia University in New York, and suffered at least five concussions during his sports career, the researchers said. That may have contributed to his neurological disorder, and he may also have had CTEM in addition to ALS, they said.

The only treatment approved for ALS is Sanofi-Aventis SA’s Rilutek, which extends patient survival by about three months, according to the institute.

The athletes’ families donated their bodies to the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Bedford, Massachusetts. All 12 of them showed signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy or CTE, a progressive degenerative brain disease. The research was funded by a grant from the National Football League.

To contact the reporter on this story: Kristen Hallam in London at khallam@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Phil Serafino at pserafino@bloomberg.net

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