Did Lou Gehrig Have Lou Gehrig's Disease?

80beatsBy Joseph CalamiaAug 18, 2010 1:16 AM


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That may seem a strange question, akin to asking who's buried in Grant's tomb. But a new study proposes that some athletes diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's disease may in fact have a different fatal disease that is set off by concussions. Researchers have previously investigated the link between athletes and this neurodegenerative disease, more technically known as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). A recent study examined what seemed to be a higher than usual incidence of Lou Gehrig's disease among soccer players, and, of course, the disease bears the name of a New York Yankee who was famously undaunted by the hard knocks of his sport. Though it's impossible to determine now whether Lou Gehrig suffered from ALS or a different condition (Gehrig was cremated), the study's lead author speculates that Lou Gehrig's disease might be a misnomer:

“Here he is, the face of his disease, and he may have had a different disease as a result of his athletic experience,” said Dr. Ann McKee, the director of the neuropathology laboratory for the New England Veterans Administration Medical Centers, and the lead neuropathologist on the study. [The New York Times]

McKee's team looked at the brains and spinal cords of deceased athletes such as former Minnesota Vikings linebacker Wally Hilgenberg and former Southern California linebacker Eric Scoggins who were thought to have died from ALS, and who had also been diagnosed with a dementia-causing disease linked to head injuries, chronic traumatic encephalopathy. The researchers found two proteins in the spinal cord which are known to harm motor neurons, and would therefore cause ALS-like symptoms. A similar pattern of proteins was found in the spinal cord of a deceased unnamed boxer.

Dr. McKee said that because she has never seen that protein pattern in A.L.S. victims without significant histories of brain trauma, she and her team were confident the three athletes did not have A.L.S., but a disorder that erodes its victims’ nervous system in similar ways. [The New York Times]

The paper detailing this research will appear tomorrow in the Journal of Neuropathology and Experimental Neurology, and a report on the subject will air on the HBO show Real Sports tonight.

“Most A.L.S. patients don’t go to autopsy--there’s no need to look at your brain and spinal cord,” said Dr. Brian Crum, an assistant professor of neurology at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. “But a disease can look like A.L.S., it can look like Alzheimer’s, and it’s not when you look at the actual tissue. This is something that needs to be paid attention to.” [The New York Times]

Such distinctions are not only important for medical research. If concussions are causing disease in military veterans and athletes, they might seek compensation for treatment expenses. Related content: 80beats: Turning Skin Cells Into Nerve Cells to Study Lou Gehrig’s Disease 80beats: A Biotech Magic Trick: Skin Cells Transformed Directly Into Brain Cells 80beats: Fetal Stem Cell Therapy Causes Cancer in Teenage Boy Science Not Fiction: Do You Speak Brain? Try Studying These Neurons-on-a-Chip

Image: University Archives—Columbiana Library, Columbia University.

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