A disturbing pattern has emerged, and is now being scientifically proven, regarding brain disease and the deaths of pro hockey players.
Earlier this week researchers at the Boston University Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy (CSTE) announced that former National Hockey League star Rick Martin was suffering from Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), a neurodegenerative disease linked to repeated brain trauma, when he died at age 59 of a heart attack last March.
All three former NHL players to have their brains studied post-mortem at the center have now been shown to be suffering from CTE, but Martin is the first who did not play an “enforcer” role and regularly participate in on-ice fights, according to the press release put out by the CSTE.
Martin was diagnosed with CTE by neuropathologist and CSTE co-director Dr. Ann McKee, the director of the largest CTE “brain bank” in the world, located at the Bedford VA Medical Center. CTE can only be diagnosed by examining brain tissue post-mortem.
Previously McKee had diagnosed former NHL players Bob Probert and Reggie Fleming with CTE. Probert died at the age of 45 from heart disease. Fleming, who died in 2009 at the age of 73 with dementia, displayed 30 years of worsening behavioral and cognitive difficulties.
Do you see a pattern here?
Martin was a seven-time All-Star in 13 seasons in the NHL, nearly all with the Buffalo Sabres before finishing his career with the Los Angeles Kings, scoring 382 goals and 701 total points as a left wing.
Martin had stage 2 of 4 (with 4 being the most severe) of the disease, a stage unlikely to significantly affect his cognitive abilities or behavior. What’s disturbing is that Martin would not appear to be a likely candidate for CTE.
He did not suffer known brain trauma outside of hockey, did not engage in fighting, and his only known concussion occurred in a game in 1977 when his head hit the ice while not wearing a helmet, causing immediate convulsions, according to the CSTE press release. Martin only wore a helmet for the four years he played after that injury.
“Rick Martin’s case shows us that even hockey players who don’t engage in fighting are at risk for CTE, likely because of the repetitive brain trauma players receive throughout their career,” said CSTE Co-Director Chris Nowinski. “We hope the decision makers at all levels of hockey consider this finding as they continue to make adjustments to hockey to make the game safer for participants.”
The New York Times wrote a story Thursday on the CSTE’s announcement, and the press release included a prepared statement by Dr. Robert Cantu, a leading concussion expert and a CSTE co-director.
“It is scientifically interesting that Mr. Martin only had stage 2 disease at 59 years old, as by that age most cases in our brain bank have advanced to stage 3 or 4,” Cantu said. “There are a number of variables that we don’t yet understand that could account for this finding, such as lower lifetime exposure to brain trauma, later onset of the disease, genetic risk factors, among others.”
Robert Stern, a CSTE co-director, also had a statement.
““We believe that repetitive brain trauma is a necessary factor for developing the disease, but not a sufficient factor,” Stern said. ” We now must learn why some people get the disease and others don’t and why CTE progresses more quickly and severely in some individuals than in others.”
The VA CSTE Brain Bank contains more brains diagnosed with CTE than have ever been reported in the world combined, according to Wednesday’s press release. There are 96 specimens, including the brain of NHL player Derek Boogaard, who died earlier this year at 28 years old. Results from that case are pending.
McKee has completed the analysis of the brains of over 70 former athletes, and more than 50 have shown signs of CTE, including 14 of 15 former NFL players, as well as college and high school football players, hockey players, professional wrestlers and boxers. More than 500 living athletes have committed to donate their brain to the BU CSTE after death, including over a dozen former hockey players.
The details of Martin’s brain tissue analysis are embargoed pending submission to an academic medical journal.
However the Martin family requested that the diagnosis be made public at this time, believing that Rick Martin would have wanted to raise awareness of the dangers of brain trauma in sports and encourage greater efforts to make sports safer for the brain, according to the press release. The Martin family is not ready to make any other comments at this time.
The CSTE was founded in 2008 and is the leading center in the world studying the long-term effects of repetitive brain trauma in sports and the military. The CSTE was created as a collaboration between BU, Sports Legacy Institute (SLI) and the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).
Co-directors of the BU CSTE include Cantu, clinical professor of neurosurgery at BUSM; McKee, professor of neurology and pathology at BUSM and director of the VA CSTE Brain Bank at VA; Nowinski; and Stern, professor of neurology and neurosurgery at BUSM.
The mission of the CSTE is to conduct state-of-the-art research of CTE, including its neuropathology and pathogenesis, the clinical presentation, biomarkers, clinical course, the genetics and other risk factors for CTE, and ways of preventing and treating this cause of dementia.
The BU CSTE has received grants from the National Institutes of Health and the National Operating Committee on Standards in Athletic Equipment (NOCSAE), and has received an unrestricted gift from the NFL.
CSTE co-directors Cantu, McKee, Stern and Nowinski serve on the NFL Players Association Mackey/White Traumatic Brain Injury Committee, which includes, and is chaired by, CSTE registry member Sean Morey. In addition, Cantu serves as a senior advisor to the NFL Head, Neck and Spine Committee.
Attorney Gordon Johnson
Past Chair Traumatic Brain Injury Litigation Group, American Association of Justice
firstname.lastname@example.org :: 800-992-9447 :: Attorney Gordon S. Johnson, Jr.