For the first time, doctors have found evidence of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy in a young athlete who was an active NFL player at the time of his death.

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Experts at the Brain Injury Research Institute at West Virginia University said today that an examination of Chris Henry’s brain tissue revealed the same kind of damage found previously in older, retired players who had histories of concussion.

Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy is the name given to a condition first identified by BIRI’s co-director, Bennet Omalu, M.B.B.S, M.B.A., M.P.H. It’s a disease of the brain believed to be caused by repeated head trauma, resulting in large accumulations of tau proteins, killing cells in regions responsible for mood, emotion, and executive functioning.

Henry had no known history of concussion during his career with the Cincinnati Bengals or during his college playing days at WVU.

“These interesting findings of tauopathy in a younger athlete who played football and had blows to the head, suggest an association between head trauma and the changes seen in the brain tissue,” Julian Bailes, M.D., chair of neurosurgery at WVU and co-director of BIRI, said. “I’m afraid we will continue to see this problem until we take the head out of the game.”

Henry was killed in December 2009 after falling out of the back of a pickup truck and suffering a fractured skull in North Carolina. Bailes said the brain tissue changes found by BIRI examination were not caused by the fall, but had developed as a result of a previous injury or injuries.

Henry’s family requested that BIRI conduct the examination of his brain tissue. BIRI scientists are examining the role of tau proteins, toxins which are a sign of Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia.

Dr. Omalu and Dr. Bailes have studied the brains of 27 athletes whose lives took disastrous and baffling turns – many ending in violent deaths at a young age. Similar damage was found in the brains of deceased football players Andre Waters, Terry Long, Mike Webster, and Justin Strzelczyk, and in professional wrestler Chris Benoit, who killed his family and himself in 2007.

Also significant, according to BIRI experts, is the discovery of the same gene in 70 percent of the brains that had evidence of CTE – Apolipoprotein E3 allele (ApoE3).

“Genetic studies will broaden our knowledge of CTE,” Dr. Omalu said. “For the first time we’re seeing emerging risk factors of subtypes of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy. These findings will be published soon.”

Bailes and Omalu said while the Henry case and others indicate that we are finding some answers to the issues of head injuries and CTE, new questions are being raised. They say research must continue to search for ways to prevent lasting damage to athletes’ brains.



CONTACT: Amy Johns, HSC News Service