Harvard Mental Health Letter

Commentary: Did Lou Gehrig have Lou Gehrig's disease?

Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), which has been associated with baseball legend Lou Gehrig since he was diagnosed with the disease in 1939, is a devastating and currently incurable illness. Motor neurons (brain cells that control muscle movement) degenerate and die, leading to a progressive paralysis that eventually robs people of the ability to breathe on their own. The illness forced Gehrig to retire from baseball immediately, and he died two years later, at the age of 37.

Dr. Ann McKee and colleagues at the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy at Boston University published an article in the September 2010 issue of the Journal of Neuropathology & Experimental Neurology that described the brains of three athletes with histories of head injuries who had an illness that looked like ALS. In doing so, the study raised questions about Gehrig's illness, including whether his neurological illness was really the result of head trauma, or what is often called mild traumatic brain injury (TBI).

The problem of TBI is in the public eye now as never before. In recent years, researchers in this area have focused their attention on war and its civilian analog, sports. By one estimate, 20% of veterans returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have experienced a mild TBI, and the Department of Defense has taken notice. Those who organize football at every level, from the National Football League to college and childhood leagues, are also under pressure to monitor players who have sustained a head injury.

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