Not just Orlando Thomas: Wally Hilgenberg’s brain

A lot of chatter this morning about the Strib’s muff of ex-Viking Orlando Thomas’ non-death, abetting by incorrect info from the team’s website, started by some Louisiana dude’s MySpace page. Though we live in an age of aggregation, non-death-by-proxy is a cautionary tale, one the paper at least explained at length.

Thomas is still living with ALS, aka Lou Gehrig’s Disease. Another Viking who really did die from it was Wally Hilgenberg, a linebacker who succumbed at age 66 last year. Coincidentally, just before the Thomas affair made headlines, Hilgenberg’s name popped up the New Yorker, as a bit player in Malcolm Gladwell’s “Offensive play: How different are dogfighting and football?”

Basically, Gladwell’s thesis is both blood contests knowingly ruin their participants by exploiting their need to please. As usual, the pop sociologist provokes, in part by likening players’ free will to that of canines. Still, it’s a great read — though you’ll probably enjoy that Vikings-Packer tilt less.

Gladwell focuses heavily on brain damage, and one of its markers, known as tau. He writes that in Alzheimer’s patients, tau marks “the critical second stage of the disease: it’s the protein that steadily builds up in brain cells, shutting them down and ultimately killing them.” This is where Hilgenberg, a linebacker in the ’60s and ’70s, comes in:

[Neurologist Ann] McKee’s laboratory occupies a warren of rooms, in what looks like an old officers’ quarters on the V.A. campus. In one of the rooms, there is an enormous refrigerator, filled with brains packed away in hundreds of plastic containers. Nearby is a tray with small piles of brain slices. They look just like the ginger shavings that come with an order of sushi. Now McKee went to the room next to her office, sat down behind a microscope, and inserted one of the immunostained slides under the lens.

“This is Tom McHale,” she said. “He started out playing for Cornell. Then he went to Tampa Bay. He was the man who died of substance abuse at the age of forty-five. I only got fragments of the brain. But it’s just showing huge accumulations of tau for a forty-five-year-old—ridiculously abnormal.”

She placed another slide under the microscope. “This individual was forty-nine years old. A football player. Cognitively intact. He never had any rage behavior. He had the distinctive abnormalities. Look at the hypothalamus.” It was dark with tau. She put another slide in. “This guy was in his mid-sixties,” she said. “He died of an unrelated medical condition. His name is Walter Hilgenberg. Look at the hippocampus. It’s wall-to-wall tangles. Even in a bad case of Alzheimer’s, you don’t see that.” The brown pigment of the tau stain ran around the edge of the tissue sample in a thick, dark band. “It’s like a big river.”

I don’t know why Gladwell didn’t specify ALS, and I haven’t followed the Thomas case closely enough to know if his affliction can yet be definitively linked to football. But the cases are reminders that what can seem like acts of God can be acts of men.

Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by jim verlautz on 10/29/2009 - 09:49 pm.

    That’s interesting, but given that we know so little about tau, potentially distorting.

    The researcher seems to imply that professional football–and presumably the violence associated with it–lead to an upswing in the body’s production of tau. But nothing discussed in the article shows that. The levels of tau in the brains might be a function of the same genetics that leads one to either have the physical characteristics, or the mental mindset, necessary to play pro football. We have no way of knowing whether, if those individuals had refrained from playing, the levels of tau would have differed.

    Once again, it’s nature vs. nurture.

  2. Submitted by Jonathan Maze on 10/30/2009 - 01:39 pm.

    Jim: Did you read the article or just what was posted here? This is just a tiny bit of that piece — which I thought was brilliant, in general. The article, which I’d suggest you read if you haven’t, indicates that a high percentage of football players’ brains that have been studied show high levels of tau. While that’s a small sample, it begs further study and certainly suggests that playing football can do substantial long-term damage to the brain.

    That said, Gladwell should have mentioned the ALS. He obviously knew, and probably thought it would have colored his evidence with the reader. But we deserved to know that.

  3. Submitted by jim verlautz on 10/30/2009 - 08:35 pm.

    Jonathan: As you suspected, I had not read the whole, so I took your advice and did read it. The article talks about many things, and I agree with much of it. The idea that a concussion (a brain injury) causes noticable brain damage is hard to debate. And what I saw as the point of that article–that the effect of the current safety levels in football is more akin to how we treat dogs than people, is fair, although I’d note that they aren’t dogs, they are men with an understanding of the price they pay and a willingness to speak out against changes that would make the game safer.

    But my original comment was not on that question, but related to the far more specific question of the relationship of tau levels to playing pro football. And I will stand by my point that we don’t exactly know what causes the production of tau, we only see that it is present in large quantities in the people tested. That finding does not distinguish between the possibilites that football causes it vs people with the aggressiveness to play high level football have naturally occuring higher secretions of tau. In fact, I thought the sentence in the article that said that some of the people they tested had only played college football was thought provoking. We have no information about those people–what level of college bal did they play (DI is quite different than DIII)and why did they stop, but the data could cause one to conjecture that if those individuals did not have the physical attributes to play at the most violent levels of the game, and then presumably did not experience the same levels of brain trauma, but still showed similar levels of tau, that the tau would have been produced regardless of the amount of football played.

    I am not claiming I know the answers, only that any inference one draws from the article here as to the relationship (in either direction) is not yet scientifically supported.

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