Researchers with the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy (CSTE) at Boston University School of Medicine have provided the first pathological evidence of a link between repeated head injuries—such as those experienced by athletes in contact sports such as boxing, football, and hockey—and a disease (chronic traumatic Encephalomyopathy) that resembles amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. The results will appear in the September issue of the Journal of Neuropathology and Experimental Neurology.

“This initial research shows great promise for further understanding what people go through after a traumatic brain injury, whether sustained on the battlefield, during a contact sport, or from other injury,” said Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki. “Advancing our knowledge in this area is the key to better treatment outcomes.”

For the new study, Dr. Ann McKee and colleagues at the CSTE examined the brains and spinal cords of 12 athletes donated by family members to the CSTE Brain Bank at the Bedford VA Medical Center.

The researchers found that all 12 athletes showed evidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a progressive neurodegenerative disease caused by repetitive trauma to the brain. The condition can result in large accumulations of tau proteins, killing cells in regions of the brain responsible for mood and emotions.

In addition to CTE, three of the athletes had been afflicted by motor neuron disease, with severe and progressive muscle weakness and deterioration for several years before their death. The brains from patients with CTE and motor neuron disease showed a unique pattern of tau and deposits of another protein, TDP-43, in the spinal cord and brain. The pattern was different from that found in the most common form of ALS.

Previous epidemiological studies have suggested a possible link between repetitive head trauma experienced by athletes and combat veterans and the development of motor neuron diseases such as ALS.

McKee and her colleagues are also studying whether military troops with traumatic brain injury from blasts or other exposures on the battlefield experience the same types of effects.

“In 2008, VA established ALS as a presumptive compensable illness for all Veterans with 90 days or more of continuously active service in the military.

(Source: Press Release)