Lou Gehrig might not have had Lou Gehrig’s disease … and a Minnesota Viking shows why

Jaw-dropping medical story from the New York Times this morning, contending that sports figures diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis — ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s Disease — may instead be victims of concussions and other brain trauma.

The Times author, Alan Schwarz, concedes no one knows for sure about Gehrig, but the brain of legendary Viking linebacker Wally Hilgenberg may be analogous. Hilgenberg’s death throes were blamed on ALS — see this 2008 Pat Reusse column — but now, Schwartz writes:

Dr. McKee had already diagnosed 12 deceased N.F.L. veterans with chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a progressive disease in brain tissue that results in cognitive impairment and eventually dementia. Two of those men — Wally Hilgenberg, a longtime linebacker for the Minnesota Vikings in the 1970s, and Eric Scoggins, who played only three games at linebacker for the 1982 San Francisco 49ers — also had A.L.S. diagnosed by their physicians.

When Dr. McKee examined the spinal-cord tissue of those men, as well as a former boxer diagnosed with A.L.S.-like symptoms, she found dramatically high levels of tau and TDP-43, two proteins known to compromise nerve function. She said that they would appear in the cord as a result of blows to the brain, with the proteins probably traveling down the spinal cord, rather than direct injury to the spinal cord itself.

Dr. McKee said that because she has never seen that protein pattern in A.L.S. victims without significant histories of brain trauma, she and her team were confident the three athletes did not have A.L.S., but a disorder that erodes its victims’ nervous system in similar ways.

There’s an assent from Mayo Clinic physician Brian Crum. The clinic holds Gehrig’s medical records but has never disclosed them, and a neurologist who inspected them was not made available.

Although Gehrig is known as a baseball hero, Schwarz writes he was a “battering ram” fullback in high school and college, and “had a well-documented history of significant concussions on the baseball field.”

Reading this has to chill any Twins fan thinking about Justin Morneau — not to mention any parent with kids in concussive sports. It also makes me wonder about local boxer Scott LeDoux, also diagnosed with ALS.

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Comments (6)

  1. Submitted by Steve Aschburner on 08/17/2010 - 11:14 am.

    C’mon, if Lou Gehrig didn’t have Lou Gehrig’s disease, they would have named it after someone else.

    I also remember Dizzy Dean, as portrayed by Dan Dailey in “The Pride of St. Louis,” getting beaned with a double-play relay when Dean went into second standing up with his head down. Did Dean show signs of “ALS” at his demise? Or would it be Dailey?

  2. Anonymous Submitted by Anonymous on 08/17/2010 - 11:28 am.

    Anyone see the Bryant Gumbel report on his show about brain injuries to pro football players? Scary stuff. Neurologists have shown than even one or two severe head blows like pro football players get every game may be enough to cause permanent damage decades later.

  3. Submitted by William Souder on 08/17/2010 - 11:35 am.

    Here’s a thought…why not get it right? Let’s let ALS be ALS and re-name the syndrome caused by brain trauma Lou Gehrig’s disease.

    Meanwhile, I share your concern over what this may say about Justin Morneau’s recent concussion and protracted recovery. The list of athletes whose careers have been ended prematurely by concussions is a long one…and probably should be much longer than it already is.

  4. Submitted by Rick Prescott on 08/17/2010 - 01:48 pm.

    I agree that this article is jaw-dropping.

    But why is it a surprise to anyone that blows to the head cause long-lasting damage? It seems pretty straightforward that if you smack your brain around long enough, bad things will happen.

    Have we just been in denial because we (sociologically speaking) like violent sports so much?

    The New Yorker ran a recent story on concussions which also mentioned Hilgenberg, and which suggested that our lust for football has at least something in common with Michael Vick’s lust for dog fighting.

    Very chilling.

  5. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 08/17/2010 - 02:58 pm.

    As someone who knows people with a history of concussions in high school and college sports, I’m not surprised at these revelations (disturbed and saddened, but not surprised).

    What I’m more interested in is whether or not this is inevitable for all of them. Do ALL players in concussive sports develop these problems? Do some have a natural, genetically-determined susceptibility to or protection from them?

    Can our the military personnel who have suffered TBIs as the result of proximity to bomb blasts of various kinds look forward to suffering the same fate – chronic, debilitating symptoms later in life, even if they seem to recover fully from the immediate effects of the injury?

    Finally, and most importantly, are there ways to treat those who are developing these chronic reactions to head trauma in order to prevent or at least minimize their effects?

  6. Anonymous Submitted by Anonymous on 08/17/2010 - 03:16 pm.

    Greg – on Gumbel’s show the prognosis for “treatment” seemed dim. Essentially these players’ brains turned to mush.

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