Six former footballers to have brains re-examined for medical research

Jeremy Wilson
Jeff Astle, seen heading a ball for West Brom, die with Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy - Mirrorpix

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The families of six former professional players have offered to donate the brain of their loved ones for future post-mortem examinations in an attempt to further understand the potential link between football and serious brain disease.

The anecdotal suspicion of many neuropathologists is that those footballers who are experiencing symptoms of dementia may actually be suffering from Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, a condition that was previously known as ‘punch-drunk syndrome’ and most commonly associated with boxers.

It is caused by repeated blows to the head and, with so many footballers now seemingly suffering from neurological disease at an early age, the fear is that football – whether through repeated heading or on-field collisions – carries an elevated risk for its participants. 

Early symptoms of CTE can also include mood swings and changes in personality, as well as the more obvious memory problems. 

Until now, Jeff Astle is the only former footballer to have had his brain re-examined and the neuropathologist who carried out the examination – Dr Willie Stewart – said it was the worst case of CTE had had ever seen. 

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CTE can only be diagnosed after death and so there is a belief that many players are being misdiagnosed with other degenerative brain diseases when, in fact, their symptoms have been caused by frequent traumas to the brain. 

Campaigners called for further research after the brains of former footballers were examined for a study by the University College London and CTE was found in two- thirds of the cases.

A further six people have now come forward and said that they would be willing to have their family member’s brain examined after they die. “The more we look, the more we have been finding,” said Dr Stewart.

The Astle family have taken great comfort from the knowledge that the re-examination of Jeff has furthered knowledge in a way that could help future players. Their Jeff Astle Foundation has also been contacted now by more than 300 families of affected players. 

Following the interview in Wednesday’s The Daily Telegraph with Jeff’s widow Laraine and daughter Dawn, a further five new families got in touch with the foundation yesterday to share the illness of their former player. 

Dawn (left) and Laraine Astle (right), daughter and widow of the late Jeff Astle Credit:  Darren O'Brien

The Astle family believe that CTE is “football’s silent scandal” and suspect that there were people in positions of authority in the national game who would have sensed a problem long before Jeff’s death. 

The case of Manchester United centre-back Charlie Roberts, who helped found the players’ union, has been brought to their attention after reports that his death as far back as 1939 at the age of 56 had followed a long brain operation. 

He apparently believed that heading the ball contributed to his spells of dizziness. Dawn Astle also had a football magazine that was sent to her dating back to 1958 in which there is an article titled ‘Football’s corridors full of punch-drunk players’.

“It has been talked about for years and years and years,” she said. “No one had grasped the issue. No-one wants to think the game can be a killer.” 

The discovery of CTE became a national scandal in American Football and heading has been banned in US children’s ‘soccer’ matches under the age of 10, something Laraine Astle regards as a sensible step for protecting young brains but also encouraging better quality play.

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