Medical evidence strikes a blow against contact sports
Three years ago Dr Ann McKee gave riveting testimony to a congressional committee in the United States investigating head traumas among the elite of American Football playing in the NFL.
A former professor of neuropathology at Harvard University, Dr McKee, who now works for Boston University, had examined the brains of thousands of people after death to look for signs of neurological damage caused by blunt trauma.
She cited the example of a world champion boxer who had died at the age of 72 having being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease at the age of 58. Instead of Alzheimer’s disease, she found a massive build-up of neurofibrillary tangles (NFT) which occur in a condition called Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, (CTE) which is usually found only in people who have been subject to repeated blows to the head.
“This individual, a former professional boxer, was clinically diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease during life,” she told the committee, “but the disease that actually caused his tragic 15-year decline in intellect and eventually killed him, was CTE, a disorder that would have been entirely prevented if he hadn’t suffered repeated head injury in his younger years as a boxer.”
Dr McKee also spoke of several NFL players who equally had suffered traumatic brain injury and found their latter years blighted by memory loss and personality disorders.
Severe brain trauma
She said she found evidence of severe brain trauma in every single NFL footballer and boxer whom she studied. A 100 per cent rate was incontrovertible evidence, she said, that playing such sports was a danger to your health.
“I have looked at thousands of brains, from individuals from all walks of life, of all ages, and during the past 20 years, I have primarily focused on abnormalities of tau protein. But I have only seen this unique pattern of changes, in this severity, in individuals with a history of repetitive head trauma, including boxers and football players. These changes are dramatically not normal,” she said.
Boxing was Ireland’s most successful sport in the Olympics and the introduction of women’s boxing as an Olympic sport gave renewed focus to an old debate: how dangerous is boxing for the brain? Does it carry too high a risk of permanent damage and what really happens to a brain subjected to repeated knocks, helmet or no helmet?
Most contact sports include an inherent risk but boxing gets one of the worst raps. The issue of the dangers in boxing will be the subject of a seminar hosted by the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland Student Society of Neuroscience this Friday which will feature Dr McKee as a keynote speaker.