John Urschel quits football in order to save his brain

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Dr. Gabe Mirkin
Dr. Gabe Mirkin

John Urschel, arguably the smartest player in the National Football League, just retired from football at age 26 to avoid concussions that can cause brain damage, known as Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy or CTE.  He will finish his course work for a Ph.D. in mathematics at MIT, one of the most prestigious institutions in the world. He played for three seasons as an offensive lineman for the Baltimore Ravens.  

The week before Urschel retired, the Carolina Panthers cut Michael Oher after he failed a physical after suffering a concussion. Oher left the Baltimore Ravens just before Urschel joined the team.  He was made famous by the movie, The Blind Side, which told the story of his life growing up with foster parents. Mike Pyle, a former captain of the Yale football team, suffered from CTE.  A.J. Tarpley, a brainy linebacker on the Buffalo Bills who played at Stanford, retired last year after several concussions. The year before, San Francisco 49ers linebacker Chris Borland left the NFL after one season, because of football’s association with long-term brain damage.  

John Urschel
John Urschel

Urschel’s Brilliant Career 

Urschel was born in Winnipeg, Canada to a surgeon father and a lawyer mother. He played football at Penn State and at the same time majored in mathematics and was graduated in three years with a perfect 4.0 grade point average. He then earned a master’s degree there in math. While at Penn State, he was awarded the William V. Campbell Trophy, known as the “Academic Heisman.”  He was drafted in the fifth round in 2014 and played in 40 games in three seasons. In 2015, he was knocked out cold in a head-to-head collision and was unable to do high-level math problems for several months afterwards. For the last two years, he has been a highly-competitive chess player and a graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He has published studies in spectral graph theory, matrix algebra, nodal decompositions of Fiedler vectors, Laplacian eigenvectors and centroidal Voronoi tessellations.

Scientific Evidence for CTE

Two days before Urschel announced his retirement, an article in the Journal of the American Medical Association reported that 110 out of 111 autopsied brains of dead NFL players showed signs of CTE (JAMA. 2017;318(4):360-370).  The study also showed that 177 of 202 deceased former football players, who died at the median age of 66 years, had brains that had signs of CTE.  The more years of playing football, the greater the signs of brain damage. 

• Among those with mild CTE brain damage, 96 percent had behavioral or mood symptoms or both, 85 percent had memory deficits, and 33 percent had dementia.

• Among those with severe CTE damage, 89 percent had behavioral or mood symptoms, 95 percent had memory deficits and 85 percent had dementia.

In June 2015 a federal judge approved a class-action lawsuit settlement between the NFL and thousands of former players. The NFL agreed to pay $1 billion as a concussion settlement, providing up to $5 million per retired player for serious medical conditions associated with repeated head trauma.  

Realize that professional football players also frequently indulge in other brain-damaging lifestyles such as taking in excessive alcohol, drugs, steroids, growth hormones, and a high-meat, high-sugar heart-attack-provoking diet. All lifestyle factors that increase risk for heart attacks also increase risk for dementia.  Furthermore, CTE can only be diagnosed with certainty after a person dies and his brain is analyzed for a buildup of Tau proteins in the brain. 

Signs of CTE

CTE is a progressive loss of brain function associated with repetitive head banging.  Early on, it causes abnormal behavior and moods characterized by argumentative, anti-social or law-breaking behavior, depression and manic behavior in which they are never wrong.  Later it can cause progressive and severe loss of memory and inability to function in society.   Eventually a person becomes unable to recognize lifelong friends, is unable to care for himself and then dies prematurely. 

CTE, Trauma and Inflammation

Your immunity tries to kill invading germs before they can kill you.  When a germ gets into your body, your immunity makes cells and chemicals that try to kill them. When the germs stop attacking you, your immunity dampens down. However, sometimes your immunity stays active all the time. This is called inflammation and it means that your own immunity is attacking you in the same way that it tries to kill germs.  The same reaction occurs when tissues in your body are damaged.  When you hit your head, you damage your brain and your immunity turns on and the same cells and chemicals that kill germs are supposed to heal damaged tissue also. However your body’s overactive immune cells produce tangled proteins called TAU bodies that accumulate in the brain to cause both CTE and Alzheimer’s disease. 

My Recommendations

Every time you hit your head, you suffer brain damage.  Your brain is made up of soft tissue that is covered by a sack of fluid in a tight box formed by your skull.  When you hit your head, the brain bounces around in the fluid banging first against one side of your skull and then the other.   The more often you hit your head, the greater the damage.  Anyone can suffer brain damage from head trauma.

• Helmets or other protective headgear are essential for activities that have a high risk of falls or other head impact, such as cycling, horseback riding or competitive skiing. 

• Sports such as boxing and football cause the most brain damage because they cause the most head banging, even when protective headgear is worn.

Dr. Gabe Mirkin is a Villager. Learn more at www.drmirkin.com

3 COMMENTS

  1. With the information out there today, I’m astounded so many parents still encourage or even permit their kids to play football in grade school and high school. I’m surprised the local school boards allow football. It just shows how people will turn a blind eye to something they enjoy no matter the consequences.