SAN DIEGO — Advanced tests done at the National Institutes of Health on the brain of football star Junior Seau, who committed suicide in May, showed he had signs of a degenerative brain disease, the National Institutes of Health said Thursday.
The former Chargers linebacker showed evidence of a degenerative disorder seen before in people who have suffered repetitive head injuries, the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke said in a statement.
Seau, a fan favorite who died last May of a self-inflicted gunshot wound at the age of 43, played in 20 National Football League seasons, along with college ball at USC and in high school in his native Oceanside.
His family donated his brain to the National Institutes of Health, which includes the NINDS, and they authorized release of the results.
Seau’s brain looked normal upon initial viewing, but neuropathologists using microscopes discovered that a normal brain protein called Tau had folded into tangled masses, like it does in brain cells of patients with Alzheimer’s disease and other progressive neurological disorders, according to an agency- issued statement.
The statement said that the way the Tau tangles were distributed in the brain led to a diagnosis of chronic traumatic encephalopathy. CTE has been found previously in autopsies of people who have suffered repetitive head injuries, including athletes who played contact sports, people who suffered multiple concussions and military veterans exposed to blast injuries.
The football star’s 23-year-old son told U-T San Diego that he wished he was aware of CTE more so he could have helped.
“I don’t think any of us were aware of the side effects that could be going on with head trauma until he passed away,” Tyler Seau said. “We didn’t know his behavior was from head trauma.”
He told the newspaper that his father suffered from wild mood swings, irrationality, forgetfulness, insomnia and depression that got progressively worse over time.
The athlete’s ex-wife said on ABC’s “Good Morning America” that with the diagnosis, things that happened toward the end of his life make sense now.
“The head-to-head contact, the collisions are just, they’re out of control,” Gina Seau said. “He was a warrior and he loved the game. But I know that he didn’t love the end of his life.”
Neither of their sons play football anymore.
“I’m hoping at some point the NFL does a little more than what they’re doing,” said Orlando Ruff, former teammate and friend. “Let’s be real the NFL is making over 9 billion a year. If they were serious about curving this issue or many other issues for that matter, I would think they would do more than contribute 30 million dollars.”
Ruff said more than 800 players and their families are currently involved in lawsuits against the NFL. As for Seau, he said the findings of CTE provide some level of closure for his freiend and mentor.
“I feel a sense of inner peace knowing that there was a reason,” said Ruff. “Junior wasn’t just an individual who decided he wanted to take his life once day, but there was actually a catalyst.”
The NINDS statement said research into CTE is still in an early stage, and physicians cannot make a diagnosis in a living person. NINDS also expressed gratitude to the Seau family for the research opportunity.
The Chargers deferred comment and referred to a statement from the NFL, which said the findings showed a need for further understanding of CTE.
“The NFL, both directly and in partnership with the NIH, Centers for Disease Control and other leading organizations, is committed to supporting a wide range of independent medical and scientific research that will both address CTE and promote the long-term health and safety of athletes at all levels,” the NFL statement says.
“The NFL clubs have already committed a $30 million research grant to the NIH, and we look forward to making decisions soon with the NFL Players Association on the investment of $100 million for medical research that is committed in the Collective Bargaining Agreement. We have work to do, and we’re doing it.”