There’s still work to do in neurological science

Published 6:00 am Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Imagine lying in bed, listening as a mosquito flies into the room. You can see the mosquito and hear it as it buzzes near your ear. It nestles right behind your ear and begins to bite you. You can’t swat it away. You can’t motion to anybody to help you. You can’t even say anything. To deal with it you just have to internalize it, Kevin Gosnell said as he described life with ALS to an audience at a TEDx event. Gosnell is the cofounder of a successful asphalt service business in Massachusetts and was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis in the spring of 2015.

“Eventually you lose your ability to breathe,” Gosnell continued. “And you suffocate. And you die.”

ALS, widely known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord, causing progressive degeneration of the motor neurons needed for communicating, eating and breathing.

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Approximately 30,000 Americans are living with ALS according to the ALS Association website.

Last week former Alabama Crimson Tide and NFL fullback Kevin Turner succumbed to his battle with ALS. He was 46.

Turner helped the Crimson Tide to a national championship in 1992. The New England Patriots drafted him after college, before he moved on to play with the Philadelphia Eagles from 1995-1999. He was diagnosed with ALS in 2010.

After the diagnosis Turner served as president of the Kevin Turner Foundation, which seeks to show the potential connections between repeated brain trauma and ALS athletes.

“I want our role to get through to the old school coaches and players that, you know, yeah you can play through a bruised shoulder or, you know, maybe a bruised elbow or whatever, but concussions are serious,” Turner said in the documentary “American Man: The Price of Gridiron Glory” featured on the foundation’s website. “That helmet protects your head from injury, it doesn’t protect your brain.”

The magnitude of head trauma in sports and the repercussions an athlete may encounter following an extended period of taking blows to the head became a subject of concern following the research of Dr. Bennet Omalu, who examined the brain of Pittsburgh Steeler Hall-of-Fame center Mike Webster. Webster died of a heart attack at the age of 50.

“When my dad started playing in the NFL, he was a loving husband, wonderful father and a smart, caring, funny man,” said Webster’s son, Garrett. “Near the end of his career and through the years after, things began to change dramatically. He grew increasingly violent and angry with those around him. In the end he died broke, alone and with only a few loyal friends still looking out for him.”

Dr. Omalu concluded that Webster suffered from Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy. According to the Brain Injury Research Institute, the brain of those suffering from CTE will gradually deteriorate and will over time lose mass. Some doctor’s estimated Webster had been in the equivalent of “25,000 car crashes” over tenure of 25 years of playing football in high school, college and the professional level.

Is there a connection with ALS and CTE? Director of the multidisciplinary ALS Center at the University of Kentucky Neuroscience Center and Professor in the Department of Neurology in Lexington, Dr. Edward Kasarskis said in an interview the correlation between the two diseases still need to be examined to draw any conclusions.

“CTE is not a motor neuron disease, and there is no clear cut cause-and-effect relationship between CTE and ALS,” Dr. Kasarskis said. “Some large, population based studies have provided evidence that head trauma might be one of many contributing factors involved in sporadic ALS…It’s important to know that the two diseases manifest themselves differently,” he said. “In ALS, people typically have a gradual progression of weakness, and in CTE, they frequently have signs of dementia, a Parkinson’s like syndrome and behavioral problems.”

Turner said he sustained countless concussions playing football. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1.6 to 3.8 million sports and recreation related concussions occur in youth in the United States each year. Up to 86 percent of athletes that suffer a concussion will experience Post-Traumatic Migraine or some other type of headache pain. High school athletes who sustain a concussion are three times more likely to sustain a second concussion and recovery times are longer than college athletes’ recovery times.

Among youth ages five to 18 years old, the five leading sports or recreational activities which account for concussions include bicycling, football, basketball, playground activities and soccer.

“Now it does scare me when there is a head to head collision,” Turner said in 2012. “It does scare me the way I use to teach people to block and tackle.”

In recent years preventative measures have been taken through all levels of sports from recreational to the professional. In fact trainers are on the sideline of all sanctioned high school sporting events. Only time will show a definitive link in head traumas and degenerative diseases.