From Tackles to Tangles: Why Head Hits Wreck Some Athletes’ Brains – Facts So Romantic

Whole brain sections (top) and microscopic sections (bottom) illustrate the differences between the brains of a 65-year-old control subject (left) and John Grimsley (right), a long-time NFL player whose brain condition affected his behavior and who died in his 40s.BU CTE Center

Steelers Pro Bowl center Mike Webster was never your typical meathead. During his heyday in the 1970s and 80s, he relied on his wits, as much as his brawn, to best opponents. “He was so smart, so prepared for everything we would face in a game,” his teammate, quarterback Terry Bradshaw, reflected in 2002. “I couldn’t have been the player I was without him.” Yet at age 50 Webster was living out of his truck, a garbage bag taped over the window. He died destitute, barely capable of remembering to eat.

While Webster’s mental decline and that of other prominent NFL players—Dave Duerson, Junior Seau—took years or decades to progress, the cellular origins of that decline have remained mysterious until recently. Studies on animals at the University of Pennsylvania suggest that misfolded tau proteins—the kind that often turn up post-head injury—are capable of spreading in the brain, triggering a quiet,…

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