Scientists analyzing the brain tissue of NFL linebacker Junior Seau discovered the player suffered from a debilitating brain disease they believe was caused by taking heavy hits to the head during his two-decade football career.
Seau committed suicide in May by shooting himself in the chest, a move many saw as an attempt to preserve his brain tissue for scientific analysis.
While the initial autopsy found no evidence of brain damage, researchers and Seau’s family told ABC News and ESPN that he suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, a disease caused by multiple hits to the head.
“What was found in Junior Seau’s brain was cellular changes consistent with CTE,” said Dr. Russell Lonser, chairman of the Department of Neurological Surgery at Ohio State University.
The disease displays symptoms “such as impulsivity, forgetfulness, depression, [and] sometimes suicidal ideation,” Lonser said, but can only be diagnosed after death.
“A lot of things, towards the end of his life, patterns that we saw and things that worried us, it makes sense now,” said Gina Seau, the player’s ex-wife with whom he remained close, describing how Seau “detached emotionally” from his children and became withdrawn.
“He was a warrior and he loved the game,” she added. “But… I know that he didn’t love the end of his life.”
More than 30 NFL players have been diagnosed with CTE, and 4,000 retired players are suing the football league for allegedly failing to protect them from brain injuries.
NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy thanked the Seau family for contributing to the research.
“We appreciate the Seau family’s cooperation with the National Institutes of Health. The finding underscores the recognized need for additional research to accelerate a fuller understanding of CTE. The NFL, both directly and in partnership with the NIH, Centers for Disease Control and other leading organizations, is committed to supporting a wide range of independent medical and scientific research that will both address CTE and promote the long-term health and safety of athletes at all levels.
“The NFL clubs have already committed a $30 million research grant to the NIH, and we look forward to making decisions soon with the NFL Players Association on the investment of $100 million for medical research that is committed in the Collective Bargaining Agreement. We have work to do, and we’re doing it.”