Head Trauma and ALS: Current Research

HBO's Real Sports with Bryant Gumble recently reported on the sports concussion issue and shed light on a number of former professional athletes whose lives have been ruined by the effects of concussions sustained in their playing days. The patients profiled in the program have been diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's Disease, which is also known as Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS).

ALS is a terminal disease. According to the ALS Association, ALS is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that attacks nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord, resulting in muscle weakness and atrophy (wasting away). The mean lifespan for someone diagnosed with ALS is three to five years, though some people live longer. Although symptoms can vary widely from person to person, muscle weakness and paralysis are almost universally experienced by ALS patients. As the weakness and paralysis spread to the person's trunk, his or her speech, swallowing, breathing and chewing are compromised. Eventually the patient needs permanent breathing help to survive. Scientist Stephen Hawking is one of the most well-known people living with ALS. Although he is trapped inside a permanently paralyzed body and relies on breathing assistance, his mind is the same. His situation has demonstrated that people can potentially live for decades after their bodies shut down.

The current theory is that athletes and soldiers are experiencing a fatal disease caused by head trauma that mimics ALS rather than ALS itself. Because football players and soldiers are experiencing similar kinds of head trauma and concussions in their respective fields, knowledge gained about one group helps explain what is going on with the other.

Researchers discovered that ALS had been diagnosed in former NFL players at a rate eight times higher than the regular population of men in the same age range. By studying the bodies of a few players after their death, the researchers determined the former players' bodies contained high levels of two proteins known to cause motor neuron degeneration. They had never seen those proteins in other patients diagnosed with ALS, which lead them to believe football players who have suffered concussions and head blows are experiencing something similar to ALS that develops in a different way. They believe those who experience this disease have a genetic predisposition for the disease that is triggered when they experience head trauma. This could explain why some people who've suffered head trauma develop the ALS-like disease while others don't.

This piece is the second in a series of three articles about the impact of concussions on football players and soldiers, research on how to treat people who have already been affected and the efforts to learn how to prevent them.

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