Junior Seau, the former National Football League linebacker who committed suicide in May, was suffering from a brain disease caused by repeated head injuries associated with contact sports.
Brain-tissue samples showed Seau had chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a progressive disease diagnosed after death, according to a statement today from the National Institutes of Health, which funds medical research. Seau’s family sent his brain tissue to researchers in July 2012, two months after he shot himself in the chest at his home in Oceanside, California.
Seau, a 12-time Pro Bowl selection who played the last of his 20 NFL seasons in 2009, was 43 at the time of his death.
Seau’s ex-wife, Gina Seau, was quoted by ABC News as saying that the family was told Seau’s disease resulted from numerous head-to-head collisions during his playing career and “developed the deterioration of his brain and his ability to think logically.”
Similar traumatic brain damage has been found in the autopsies of at least two other ex-NFL players who killed themselves -- Andre Waters, a former Philadelphia Eagles defensive back, in November 2006 at the age of 44; and Dave Duerson, a one-time Chicago Bears defensive back, in February 2012 at age 50.
More than 2,000 former NFL players, including Super Bowl-winning quarterback Jim McMahon, have filed more than 80 lawsuits against the league seeking damages for head injuries sustained on the field. Former Atlanta Falcons safety Ray Easterling, one of those who sued the league, shot and killed himself two weeks before Seau at his home in Richmond, Virginia.
The NFL said the NIH’s finding underscores the need for additional research to accelerate a fuller understanding of the disease, which is also known as CTE. The league said its teams have already committed a $30 million research grant to the NIH, and that it is committed to supporting a wide range of independent medical and scientific research that will both address CTE and promote long-term health and safety of athletes at all levels.
“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,” the NFL said in a statement. “We have work to do, and we’re doing it.”
Results of the study on Seau’s brain showed the disease as well as evidence of scarring consistent with a small, old traumatic brain injury, according to the NIH statement. In the analysis, a team of neuropathologists each examined tissue samples from three different unidentified brains.
People who died with the disease have been described as undergoing personality changes, depression, increased irritability and trouble with attention, researchers said.
“The type of findings seen in Mr. Seau’s brain have been recently reported in autopsies of individuals with exposure to repetitive head injury, including professional and amateur athletes who played contact sports, individuals with multiple concussions, and veterans exposed to blast injury and other trauma,” according to the statement.
The disease causes abnormal, small tangles of a protein in the brain, and may include extensive cell death and shrinkage of the brain. It was first described in studies of boxers who developed dementia and symptoms resembling Parkinsons.
NIH researchers said it’s unclear whether and how the disease progresses to the more extensive brain degeneration, and that CTE study remains in a very early stage.
Changes in the brain can begin months, years or even decades after a player’s last concussion or end of athletic involvement, according to the Boston-based Sports Legacy Institute, which advocates for rules to reduce the risk of concussions in sports.
The NFL Players Association called for a congressional committee to review the issue.
“The only way we can improve the safety of players, restore the confidence of our fans and secure the future of our game is to insist on the same quality of medical care, informed consent and ethical standards that we expect for ourselves and for our family members,” the union said in a statement.
Seau, taken fifth overall by the San Diego Chargers in the 1990 NFL draft, was chosen the league’s defensive player of the year in 1992 and was named to the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s All-Decade Team of the 1990s. He played three seasons with the Miami Dolphins after leaving the Chargers in 2002 and spent his last four years in the NFL with the New England Patriots before retiring after the 2009 season.
In October 2010, Seau was hospitalized with minor injuries when his sports utility vehicle went off a cliff in Carlsbad, California, hours after he was arrested for domestic abuse. Seau, who was conscious and behind the wheel when his car was found about 100 feet below the road, told investigators he didn’t try to kill himself and had driven off the cliff because he fell asleep.
The Bethesda, Maryland-based NIH, a part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, is made up of 27 institutes and centers focused on specific diseases or body symptoms.