By: Donna Spencer, The Canadian Press
CALGARY – The decision by Derek Boogaard’s family to donate his brain to science is another example of athletes helping the medical world understand the effects of hits to the head.
Boogaard, who was found dead Friday in his Minneapolis apartment, will have his brain sent to a Boston University medical centre that studies chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative brain disease caused by repeated head trauma.
The 28-year-old Saskatoon native’s cause of death has yet to be determined.
In the three years since the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy was established at BU, the brains of 75 deceased athletes (half of them football players) have been analysed, according to co-director Chris Nowinski.
Among the deceased athletes whose brains were analysed were NHL player Bob Probert, who died at 45 last year of a heart attack, and Canadian pro wrestler Chris Benoit, whose killed himself at the age of 40 in 2007.
Nowinski, the main speaker Sunday at a concussion seminar in Calgary, is a former college football player and pro wrestler who suffered multiple concussions during his career.
He wrote “Head Games: Football’s Concussion Crisis” and is largely credited with bringing attention to CTE and a possible link to repeated head blows suffered by pro athletes in collision sports.
While Nowinski wouldn’t comment specifically on Boogaard, he says athletes like him are contributing greatly to understanding the mystery of brain injury.
CTE was once termed “punch drunk” and less than 50 studies were conducted on the subject between 1928 and 2005, he said. Now, 400 athletes still living have committed to donating to the brain bank after their deaths.
“One of the best ways we’re finding out the long-term effects of hits to the head is through actually studying the brain post-mortem,” Nowinski explained. “A lot of the abnormalities we find cannot be studied in living people, so we really appreciate every family that’s participated. They’ve changed the knowledge of CTE.
“It’s very humbling and I have great respect for the families that have done it because they know a lot of times we’re not even searching for answers to death. We’re just trying to understand what sports has done.”
Boogaard’s agent Ron Salcer and a spokeswoman for the Boston University School of Medicine confirmed Sunday to The Associated Press that Boogaard’s family made the donation.
Salcer says Boogaard was approached by researchers because he played combative style similar to Probert, whom the centre determined suffered from CTE. Boogaard missed the last half of the 2010-11 season with the Rangers while recovering from a concussion, although no link has been made between that and his death.
Former NFL safety Dave Duerson died by a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest in February. The 50-year-old left a note asking for his brain to be donated to the centre, which established Duerson suffered from brain damage linked to concussions.
Some athletes, including Nowinski himself, have publicly announced their intention to bequeath their brains to science.
Hockey players Keith Primeau and Kerry Goulet are two of them. Both had major concussions during their careers. They’re trying to educate coaches, players and parents on recognizing and preventing head injuries through their organization Stop Concussions.
Goulet, a Winnipeg native who played pro hockey in Europe, recalled feeling suicidal for several months when he suffered a concussion in 2000.
“Hopefully through (Boogaard’s) death — and if it is something that has been dealt to him through concussions and possibly the CTE situation — that we learn from it and take action now,” Goulet said.
“There’s going to be a lot more athletes giving their brains and higher profile than I am, but the way Chris put it, we need to have everybody’s brain.
“We can wait forever for data and wait for statistics, but the problem is we know the problem is happening now. If nothing else, let’s change the way we do things. By donating my brain, hopefully it helps (others) make the decision (to do it).”
Goulet and Nowinski were among the speakers at Sunday’s seminar “Head on, the sport head injury prevention convention” at the University of Calgary. It was sponsored by local minor sports associations and geared towards amateur athletes.
“There are children going to bed with undiagnosed concussions,” Goulet said. “It’s a ticking time bomb.”
About 75 coaches, parents and a few young athletes fell silent watching video during Nowinski’s presentation depicting an NFL player unable to remember a few numbers or the months of the year.
While head injuries are currently the buzz in the NFL and NHL, the attention paid to brain trauma in young, amateur athletes is woeful, according to Nowinski.
“If they’re concerned about the professionals and the concussion issues in the NHL and NFL, they should be 10 times more concerned with what is happening at the youth level,” Nowinski said. “The developing brain is far more susceptible to damage from trauma.”
Professional athletes have doctors and therapists available during practices and games to quickly diagnose and treat concussions. Most children have only parents and coaches watching from the sidelines.
“The infrastructure we provide whether to medical resources or training for coaching and parents is minuscule to what the pros have available to them,” Nowinski said. “I want every parent and coach to walk out of here reconsidering every blow to the head their kid takes, and to decide what is appropriate considering all we know and all we don’t know about brain trauma.”
He says unlike adult athletes, children are ill-equipped to determine they’ve suffered a head injury and thus don’t tell anyone. Pre-season education of coaches, parents and players on concussions, plus a firm policy on what to do in the event of a head injury and when an athlete can be cleared to play, should be mandatory in minor sport, he added.
“We need to demand more from ourselves and from our youth programs,” he said. “We need to dramatically reduce unnecessary brain trauma, hitting in practice, changing rules so we aren’t intentionally hitting each other in the head. We need to be absolutely preventing any child we suspect of having a concussion go back into the game.”