NFL Hall of Famer Joe DeLamielleure has taken thousands of hits to the head and recently has had troubling symptoms including sudden anger, depression, and sleeplessness. He is sure that he has the devastating brain disease CTE based on tests that have still to be scientifically proven. Currently, scientific evidence says it can only be diagnosed in the brains of deceased people.
Researchers are currently working to develop a test for CTE, but based on results that are preliminary and unproven, they have essentially told him he has the CTE diagnosis. 62-year-old DeLamielleure is sure of it and the results are reassuring to him because it provides an explanation for his changing symptoms. “They’re absolutely positive I have it. You can see it on the X-ray,” DeLamielleure said by telephone from his home in Charlotte, N.C.
Last year at UCLA, the former Buffalo Bills offensive lineman and several other retired players were tested and were told by researchers that changes seen on the scans are consistent with CTE. Their brains looked like those of former players who had killed themselves and were diagnosed with CTE during autopsies.
Dr. Julian Bailes, co-director of the North Shore Neurological Institute in Evanston, Ill, and co-researchers at UCLA believe they are leading the pack with a PET scan that can detect abnormal build-up of a protein, called tau, in the brain. The results of the initial study- five former NFL players, including DeLamielleure- were published last year and more are expected to be published. For many doctors, testing in the living for CTE raises ethical questions because the disease is progressive and cannot be cured.
Robert Stern, a scientist with Boston University’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, has also examined 70 former NFL players and says results so far are promising, and medical ethicists have been consulted for guidance on what to tell players about the findings. “There has been so much hype about this issue,” he added. “The awareness and the attention to CTE has grown so tremendously in the last three to four years, but it has grown much, much faster than the science could possibly grow. We’re still in the early infancy of our scientific knowledge of this disease.”
Several former NFL players have been diagnosed with CTE after their deaths- all committing suicide- including Junior Seau, Dave Duerson and Ray Easterling. DeLamielleure estimates that he endured 200,000 head blows during his 13-year NFL career and didn’t worry about it until word began to spread about CTE and eagerly volunteered for this experimental study. “When I read what happened to Junior Seau and Dave Duerson — they didn’t sleep, had wild mood swings, and shot themselves in the chest — I wanted to know what I was going through before something happened,” he said.
There is still a lot unknown about CTE such as why some athletes with a history of head blows never get dementia or other debilitating symptoms, who is most prone to CTE and whether genes or other health conditions increase the risk.
DeLamielleure said based on his test results, the researchers recommended a healthy diet and supplements including fish oil. He and other former NFL players get together to talk about their symptoms. “You talk privately, ‘How do you feel? Do you get depressed? Yeah, I get depressed for no reason,'” he said. “Or you snap, just get upset for no reason at all.”