Researchers Find CTE In A Soccer Player For The First Time


Two players rise for a header during a league match in Brazil.

Researchers at Boston University who have previously documented cases of chronic brain disease in numerous football players have now found the same disease in the brain of a deceased former soccer player.

Chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, is the brain disease thought to be caused by repetitive hits to the head. It has been commonly linked with football — it was discovered first in the brain of deceased Pittsburgh Steelers offensive lineman Mike Webster and has been present in the brains of numerous football players who committed suicide, including Dave Duerson and Junior Seau — and its major effects include depression, dementia, suicide, and other brain diseases.

Now, researchers have found it in Patrick Grange, a former soccer player who died in 2013 from Lou Gehrig’s disease (ALS). Grange presents the first documented case of CTE in a soccer player, and it’s possible that the sport itself contributed to the development of the disease, the New York Times reports:

Grange’s parents, Mike and Michele, said Patrick, who died in April after being found to have amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, was especially proud of his ability to head the ball. They recalled him as a 3-year-old, endlessly tossing a soccer ball into the air and heading it into a net, a skill that he continued to practice and display in college soccer and top-level amateur and semiprofessional leagues in his quest to play Major League Soccer. […]

“He had very extensive frontal lobe damage,” said Dr. Ann McKee, the neuropathologist who performed the brain exam on Grange. “We have seen other athletes in their 20s with this level of pathology, but they’ve usually been football players.”

The damage to Grange’s brain, McKee said, corresponds to the part of the head that Grange would have used for headers. But she cautioned about broad conclusions.

There isn’t enough research, McKee said, to confirm that heading the ball was the root cause of Grange’s CTE or that CTE was the root of his ALS. But it should spark action throughout soccer, because like the NFL, NCAA, and many high school federations, soccer leagues across the world have mishandled concussions and have been slow to make changes that could protect their players.

This is also another reminder that the concussion crisis — or, rather, the brain injury crisis, because it seems that concussions aren’t necessarily a requirement for CTE development — stretches across a number of sports. Researchers have now found CTE in boxing, football, hockey, rugby, baseball, and soccer. More research is required, as McKee noted, to draw big conclusions about how prevalent CTE is and what different sports can do to prevent its development, but one thing is for sure: all of our sports need to start figuring out how they can better address, manage, and treat concussions and other head injuries to protect the people (and especially the kids) who play their games. There’s no longer any excuse not to.