Kevin Turner, a high-profile professional football player who was thought to have died of ALS, was actually afflicted with the degenerative brain disorder chronic traumatic encephalopathy, according to results of his autopsy presented Thursday.
The findings are the “best circumstantial evidence we will ever get that this ALS-type of motor neuron disease is caused by CTE,” said Dr. Ann McKee of the Boston University CTE Center at a press conference Thursday.
That’s not to say that every case of ALS is actually CTE, but rather than CTE in certain parts of the brain can cause symptoms similar to ALS, and may be misdiagnosed.
Turner died in March at age 46 after an eight-season NFL career with the New England Patriots and the Philadelphia Eagles. He was also a lead plaintiff in a lawsuit against the NFL demanding the the league do more to help players suffering from debilitating diseases.
When Turner was 39, he started experiencing weakness in both of his arms. A year later, he was diagnosed with ALS, a disease in which patients gradually lose muscle function, and for which there is no cure.
However McKee said that Turner’s symptoms were likely not ALS as such but rather caused by CTE. The autopsy indicated that the part of Turner’s brain that controlled muscle function — the motor cortex — was riddled with the protein tangles characteristic of CTE.
This isn’t the first time that ALS and CTE have been linked. McKee and colleagues published a paper in 2010 looking at individuals with CTE who also had signs of motor neuron disease. She said that there are 17 cases of individuals with signs of both CTE and ALS in the brain bank she directs.
Neither ALS nor CTE have a known cure, raising the question: What difference would it have made for Turner had doctors diagnosed him with CTE originally? Turner’s father told STAT that he had the very same question.
“We couldn’t have done anything for him,” McKee said. “That’s why I want to stop focusing on whether this disease exists and start doing something about this disease.”
McKee made it clear that she’s not trying to stop people from playing sports, but some of her colleagues were less forgiving.
Christopher Nowinski, cofounder of the Concussion Legacy Foundation, which is one of the collaborators on McKee’s brain bank, said that children shouldn’t be playing tackle football until high school.
Turner’s father said he has two grandsons who have played the game. One is 19 and plays at Clemson University (though he isn’t competing this year) and the other is 16 and played football last year, but not this year.
“I talked him out of playing,” Raymond Turner said.