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Unusual Case of Brain Disease Found in Former College Football Player

(Image credit: David Lee |

A young man who played football in college and suffered many concussions had already developed a degenerative disease of the brain that is usually seen in older people by the time he died at age 25 from a heart problem, according to a new report of his case.

The brain disease, called chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), occurs in people who have experienced repetitive trauma to the brain, and can only be diagnosed by autopsy, the researchers said. The man's case was unusual because widespread signs of CTE in the brain are rare in people of this age, although smaller signs that the disease is developing have been seen in people as young as 17, the researchers said in their report.

"This athlete is just one in a series of former contact-sports athletes, including those having played American football, with evidence of CTE at autopsy," Dr.James M. Noble, who was not involved in the new report, wrote in a related editorial published today (Jan. 4) along with the report of the man's case in the journal JAMA Neurology. "Several of these former players were even younger — just teenagers at the time pathological findings were identified," added Noble, a neurologist at Columbia University.

The authors of the report examined the man's brain after he died in 2013 from a bacterial infection in his heart. The researchers also interviewed his family members and looked at the results of neuropsychological testing conducted when the man was 24. [10 Things You Didn't Know About the Brain]

The researchers learned that the man started playing football when he was 6 years old, and that he played for 16 years, including three years of Division I college football. He experienced more than 10 concussions during his life while playing football, the researchers said.

In one concussion, which occurred during his freshman year of college, the man lost consciousness momentarily, and then had ongoing headaches, blurry vision, insomnia and memory problems, among other issues.

Although he took medication to treat his symptoms, the problems persisted, and as a result, he stopped playing football at the beginning of his junior season, the researchers reported. The man also started failing his courses, despite having done well in high school (graduating with a 3.8 GPA) and earlier in college.

He eventually left school with a 1.9 GPA, when he was 12 credits short of earning a bachelor's degree.

Other symptoms related to the man's brain condition included apathy, decreased appetite and suicidal thoughts. The man also had difficulty keeping a job and started using marijuana to help with his headaches and sleep problems. He also became verbally aggressive and physically abusive toward his wife.

The man started playing football when he was a child, and he also experienced his first concussion at a young age, when he was 8 years old, noted Dr. Ann C. McKee, director of the CTE Center at Boston University, who co-authored the report. Although the researchers can't draw definitive conclusions from a single case, the report may suggest that the researchers "are looking into the possibility that early brain damage, that is trauma-related brain damage, while the brain is still developing may be more damaging than if you were to get the same trauma during your adult life," McKee told Live Science.

The first case of CTE associated with football was reported 10 years ago in a man who had been a professional athlete. Since then, research on CTE and concussions has grown, Noble said in his editorial.

However, there are still questions that remain unanswered, Noble said. For example, it is not clear why about 10 percent of athletes who suffer a concussion take longer than the typical one to two weeks to recover, he noted. It is also unclear why CTE occurs in some athletes, as it did in the college athlete described in the new case report, but not in others.

Follow Agata Blaszczak-Boxe on Twitter. Follow Live Science @livescience, Facebook & Google+. Originally published on Live Science.