04:37 - Source: CNN
The Science Behind the NFL's Biggest Problem

Story highlights

Chronic traumatic encephalopathy results from repetitive hits to the head

The disease has symptoms that are similar to Alzheimer's

44 of 55 college football players were found to have CTE

CNN  — 

The case of college football player Michael Keck has added more fuel to the fire about whether young children should play football.

Despite the fact that Keck, 25, never played professional football, he was diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the Alzheimer’s-like disease that also claimed the likes of former Chicago Bears safety Dave Duerson and former San Diego Chargers linebacker Junior Seau, and with equal severity.

“I was surprised how extensive it was,” said Dr. Ann McKee, professor of neurology and pathology at Boston University. She and her team have evaluated 170 brains to understand the pathology of CTE. The telltale sign of the disease is tangles of the protein tau, which takes over parts of the brain. They result from repeated hits to the head.

“I have never seen this (brain) pathology in someone under the age of 30”, she said. McKee and her team’s findings were published in JAMA Neurology.

Keck suffered more than 10 concussions

Keck began playing football at 6. In his 16 years of playing, he had more than 10 concussions, the first when he was 8. Not once did he go to the hospital for treatment.

The star high school player was also a good student. He had a 3.8 GPA and was offered football scholarships to Alabama, Michigan and Southern California, according to the Kansas City Star. He spent his freshman year at the University of Missouri and then transferred to Missouri State.

During his freshman year at University of Missouri, he suffered a concussion on the field. He lost consciousness, suffered headaches, neck pain, insomnia and anxiety. He couldn’t remember things or concentrate.

Keck was allowed to return to play a few days afterward but the symptoms persisted. He eventually saw a neurologist, who prescribed him a muscle relaxant and anti-seizure medication, but they did little and the symptoms continued. By the beginning of his junior season at Missouri State, he stopped playing football because the symptoms were so strong.

Keck was also suffering at school, the once star student now had a 1.9 GPA, and he eventually dropped out of school, 12 credits shy of graduating with his bachelor’s degree.

His wife, Cassandra Keck, told CNN affiliate KCTV, “he had great opportunities, and he had to turn these opportunities down because of something that was taking over his brain.”

FILE - In this March 21, 2007, file photo, then-Missouri redshirt freshman Michael Keck listens on during drills.

He became increasingly depressed and suicidal. He couldn’t keep a job and started using marijuana daily to deal with his headaches and anxiety. In addition, he became increasingly abusive toward Cassandra, verbally and physically, despite becoming increasingly dependent on her.

“It went to where he would punch holes in the walls or throw something,” said Cassandra.

‘I want my brain donated’

Keck believed he suffered from CTE, but it cannot be diagnosed in living people.

“He was like, ‘You know, no one believes I have this disease,’ but he believed he did and I believed him and so he told me, he’s like, ‘If I ever die, I want my brain donated to Boston University,’ ” said Cassandra.

Keck died from cardiac arrest in 2013, and it does appear his life was lost to CTE.

The devastating disease has been found in athletes as young as 17. Owen Thomas, a football player from the University of Pennsylvania who had CTE, took his own life at 21. Keck was unique because of how extensively his brain had been taken over by lesions of tau.

McKee and her team have discovered CTE in the brains of 44 out of 55 college football players. “To find it in 44 players suggests that it isn’t a rare condition, just a condition that we didn’t look for before.”

In addition, behavioral symptoms of the disease usually don’t appear for quite some time said McKee. “Usually there’s a latent period. He seemed to develop it while he was playing. Even after he quit playing, it seemed to get worse.”

Who develops CTE still a mystery

But there’s much to still learn about this disease. McKee said it is still unclear what makes some players develop this disease and others not; factors such as environment and genetics may have a role. “These may be factors that influence the development. We don’t know.”

But McKee points to the fact that despite not having played in the professional league, Keck played for a long time. “He started at age 6, he still played 16 years. That’s lengthy.” She added that age of first exposure to these kind of hits may lead to greater cognitive consequences.

“I think its becoming more and more clear that the developing brain is more susceptible to concussion; it has a delayed recovery from concussion,” said McKee.

How can we keep players safe?

More and more experts have called to limit contact sports among young children. “We really need to limit the amount of head contact that young children and adolescents are experiencing,” said McKee.

While some experts such as Dr. Robert Cantu of Boston University have said children younger than 14 should not be allowed to play tackle football, others such as neurosurgeon Dr. Julian Bailes said what is most effective to keep kids safe is to teach proper technique. Bailes is medical director of Pop Warner football. “We are taking out unnecessary head contact out of the sport, out of practice. We’re enforcing rule changes,” said Bailes. In addition, Bailes, who is chairman of neurosurgery at NorthShore University HealthSystem, points out that Keck is just one of a handful of severe cases in younger players.

While debate continues about how to make the game safer, McKee says accounting for cases such as Keck’s is important.

“I just want to make sports safe for our kids.”