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A closer look at the ‘Lou Gehrig may not have had Lou Gehrig’s disease’ story

It was hard not to be stunned and fascinated by yesterday’s news accounts of a study that — according to many headlines, at least — suggests that “Namesake Disease May Not Have Killed Lou Gehrig” (Time). Gehrig, of course, is the famous New York Yankee first baseman who died in 1941 from the neurodegenerative disease known officially as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) but more commonly by his name.

But, as Gary Schwitzer pointed out yesterday in his widely respected (and Minnesota-based) HealthNewsReview blog, although this research is “important and fascinating,” reporters should be careful about sensationalizing the findings.

To begin with, the study [PDF], which appears in the September issue of the Journal of Neuropathology and Experimental Neurology, presents no evidence that Gehrig didn’t have ALS. The study’s authors do make that leap in interviews with reporters, but the study itself has nothing to do with Gehrig.

And that evidence is unlikely to be forthcoming. For, as noted in several news reports (including Maura Lerner’s article in today’s Minneapolis StarTribune), the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, which houses Gehrig’s medical records, won’t release those records or even comment on them.

What the new study did find — and it’s an intriguing finding that requires follow-up research — is that some athletes and soldiers diagnosed with ALS may instead have another medical condition that’s caused by concussions or other brain injuries.

But — and this is No. 1 on Schwitzer’s warning list about jumping to conclusions from this study — only 12 brains were examined, and of these only three have ALS. (One was that of Wally Hilgenberg, a 1970s linebacker for the Minnesota Vikings.) As Dr. Steven Atlas, one of HealthNewsReview’s medical editors, pointed out in an e-mail to Schwitzer, “This represents a small and interesting case series. The lowest rung on the clinical evidence ladder.”

Also troubling to Schwitzer are comments in news reports that this study may”lead toward new pathways for a cure.” “After a suggestive finding in just three people?” Schwitzer asks.

A fascinating medical tale? Yes. Yet another warning about the danger of head injuries? Yes. But let’s wait for more research before we jump to any other conclusions.

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