Above: In healthy brain tissue, virtually no protein tangles, which show up as brown spots, are visible.
Above: The brain of a 45-year-old football player with chronic traumatic encephalopathy shows more brown tangles.
By Stephanie Smith
CNN Medical Producer
(CNN) — For years after his NFL career ended, Ted Johnson could barely muster the energy to leave his house.
The brain of a 45-year-old football player with chronic traumatic encephalopathy shows more brown tangles.
“I’d [leave to] go see my kids for maybe 15 minutes,” said Johnson. “Then I would go back home and close the curtains, turn the lights off and I’d stay in bed. That was my routine for two years.
“Those were bad days.”
These days, the former linebacker is less likely to recount the hundreds of tackles, scores of quarterback sacks or the three Super Bowl rings he earned as a linebacker for the New England Patriots. He is more likely to talk about suffering more than 100 concussions.
“I can definitely point to 2002 when I got back-to-back concussions. That’s where the problems started,” said Johnson, who retired after those two concussions. “The depression, the sleep disorders and the mental fatigue.”
Until recently, the best medical definition for concussion was a jarring blow to the head that temporarily stunned the senses, occasionally leading to unconsciousness. It has been considered an invisible injury, impossible to test — no MRI, no CT scan can detect it.
But today, using tissue from retired NFL athletes culled posthumously, the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy (CSTE), at the Boston University School of Medicine, is shedding light on what concussions look like in the brain. The findings are stunning. Far from innocuous, invisible injuries, concussions confer tremendous brain damage. That damage has a name: chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).
On Tuesday afternoon, researchers at the CSTE released a study about the sixth documented case of CTE in former NFL player Tom McHale, who died in 2008 at the age of 45, and the youngest case to date, an 18-year-old multi-sport athlete who suffered multiple concussions.
While CTE in an ex-NFL player’s brain may have been expected, the beginnings of brain damage in an 18-year-old brain was a “shocking” finding, according to Dr. Ann McKee, a neuropathologist at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Bedford, Massachusetts, and co-director of the CSTE.
“We think this is how chronic traumatic encephalopathy starts,” said McKee. “This is speculation, but I think we can assume that this would have continued to expand.”