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Brain & Nervous System Health Center

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Concussions Linked to Condition Similar to ALS

Study Shows Repeated Head Traumas May Raise Risk of Symptoms Seen in Lou Gehrig's Disease
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

Aug. 17, 2010 -- Repetitive head traumas and concussions, including the type sustained by many professional football players, may increase risk for developing a motor neuron disease that looks and acts a lot like amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) or Lou Gehrig’s disease. The disease is calledchronic traumatic encephalopathy.

The new findings appear in the September issue of the Journal of Neuropathology and Experimental Neurology.

"We are not suggesting that this is the same disease as ALS," says study researcher Robert Cantu, MD, clinical professor of neurosurgery at Boston University School of Medicine and co-director of The Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy there. "We think this is a disease that mimics ALS in terms of the spinal cord."

ALS attacks nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord resulting in progressive muscle weakness and wasting, according to the ALS Association. When chronic traumatic encephalopathy affects the brain and spinal cord, the symptoms are similar to what is seen in ALS.

Testing Tissue of Pro Athletes

In the new National Football League-funded study,researchers looked at tissue samples taken from the brain and spinal cords of 12 deceased athletes. Three of the 12 athletes -- pro football players Wally Hilgenberg and Eric Scoggins and one professional boxer/veteran -- had developed a motor neuron disease; two died after being diagnosed with ALS.

But the new research suggests that the three athletes may have actually had chronic traumatic encephalopathy. There was an abnormal form of tau protein in the brain and spinal cords of all 12 athletes. This abnormal protein is a hallmark of chronic traumatic encephalopathy.

What's more, 10 of the 12 also showed a second abnormal protein called TDP-43 in their brains. Only three of those 10 also had evidence of this protein in their spinal cord, and these were the same three athletes who were diagnosed with motor neuron disease, the researchers report.

This may have resulted in some of the ALS-like symptoms that led to the erroneous ALS diagnosis, Cantu explains. TDP-43 is found in brains of people who are diagnosed with ALS, but the amount was more extensive in the athletes than in their counterparts with true ALS.

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