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.