NFL legend and sportscaster Frank Gifford may have died from natural causes in August, but his family wants you to know that his brain showed signs of chronic injury caused by the game he loved. A statement from the Gifford family revealed that:
“While Frank passed away from natural causes this past August at the age of 84, our suspicions that he was suffering from the debilitating effects of head trauma were confirmed when a team of pathologists recently diagnosed his condition as that of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) — a progressive degenerative brain disease.”
Gifford’s family said they decided to have his brain studied “in hopes of contributing to the advancement of medical research concerning the link between football and traumatic brain injury.”
“During the last years of his life, Frank dedicated himself to understanding the recent revelations concerning the connection between repetitive head trauma and its associated cognitive and behavioral symptoms — which he experienced firsthand.”
“We miss him every day, now more than ever,” the family statement said, “but find comfort in knowing that by disclosing his condition we might contribute positively to the ongoing conversation that needs to be had; that he might be an inspiration for others suffering with this disease that needs to be addressed in the present; and that we might be a small part of the solution to an urgent problem concerning anyone involved with football, at any level.”
Chronic traumatic encephalopathy is a form of brain damage which is believed to be caused by repeated concussions. Originally described in boxers, and called dementia pugilistica (DP) (commonly called “punch drunk”), symptoms include memory impairment, speech and gait problems, Parkinsonism, tremors and lack of coordination.
Early on there may be emotional instability, erratic behavior, depression and problems with impulse control. Eventually it leads to full-blown dementia. Floyd Patterson, Sugar Ray Leonard, and Muhammad Ali are all suspected to be victims of DP.
In 2002, Dr. Bennet Omalu, a forensic pathologist and neuropathologist in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania examined the brains of four professional football players who had histories of repeated concussions. Microscopic findings where identical to those found in DP, and he renamed the condition chronic traumatic encephalopathy.
The disease is characterized by the build-up of a toxic protein called tau in the form of neurofibrillary tangles (NFTs) throughout the brain (brown areas in the picture at left). These tangled clumps of protein are abnormal and found within the nerve cells in the brain.
They were first described by Dr. Alois Alzheimer in one of his patients suffering from dementia. These tangles interfere with the normal functioning of the brain and eventually kill brain cells. Although the dementia of CTE is similiar to that seen in patients with Alzeheimers Disease, they are different conditions.
The distribution of the damage is widespread, including the cerebral cortex (which includes the frontal and temporal lobes), the thalamus, hypothalamus, brainstem and spinal cord.
Unfortunately, CTE can only be diagnosed at autopsy using special tests that are not routinely performed.
Boston University, at its Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy(CSTE), has thus far studied the brains of 14 former NFL players, and has found CTE in 13 of those players. They have even found evidence of CTE in younger football players- the youngest being 18 years old.
Here is an excellent video by the CSTC that explains the problem and what needs to be done: