This has been a hell of an interesting week in terms of brain function. Just when you thought the world was moving forward from the questionable mental acuity of Charlie Sheen and the rest of his ilk, we've got trauma on the brain - literally - in the form of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) found in the brain of deceased hockey enforcer Bob Probert.
In case your short term memory is failing, Probert passed away of a heart attack last July, at the age of 45. He was known as the most feared enforcer to ever play in the NHL. His colourful career, complete with 3,300 total penalty minutes, mirrored his even more colourful off-ice persona, which was marred by drug and alcohol abuse. According to the story that appeared in The New York Times earlier this week, Probert decided to donate his brain to the Boston University Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, after he and his wife, Dani, saw a 60 Minutes segment about the prevalence of CTE in brains of deceased former NFL players. According to Probert's wife, he began to exhibit symptoms of erratic brain function in his 40s: diminished short term memory, bouts of temper, and lack of impulse control. These symptoms could have been caused by countless blows to the head Probert received over the course of his NHL career, they could have been a result of years of drug and alcohol abuse, or they could have been the result of accidents Probert was involved in when he was drinking and using drugs. No one can say for sure; the one certainty in this scenario is that evidence of CTE was found in Probert's brain, albeit not quite as severe as what has been found in the brains of former NFL players, wrestlers and boxers that were looked at prior to Probert's.
Regardless of the severity of Probert's CTE, the hockey world has been buzzing about this revelation all week. Any hockey fan will tell you that fighting is an integral part of the game, and attempts to remove it have been met with significant resistance. Rules have been tinkered with, and punishments made more severe, but that hasn't stopped the occurrence of concussions from increasing over the course of this season. Even superstar Sidney Crosby has been sidelined for 2 months after sustaining a concussion and attempting to play through it.
There has been a significant uptick in pledges of brain donations to the BU center by NHL and NFL players. Unfortunately, nothing can be gleaned from a brain while its owner is still using it. All research must be conducted posthumously. In Probert's case, it is unclear whether or not his drug use had any effect on the level of CTE found in his brain, but the findings are consistent with other brains that were studied. Comments from the higher-ups at the NHL indicate that they are waiting to see what more research will show; they're not going to readily admit that their players are in danger of scrambling their brains every time they lace up the skates and take the ice. And, they obviously don't want to send waves of panic rippling through all the junior and amateur leagues, right on down to the pee-wees.
We know precious little about the brain. We witness miracles, like the fact that Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords is alive after being shot point-blank in the head. We read about the erratic behaviour of athletes who seem to be predisposed to concussions; we hear horrific tales of older, retired professional athletes who commit heinous acts, and then commit suicide. Only an ignorant person would stick their head in the sand by saying that the behaviour/occupation correlation is a load of crap. We may not know much, but science is beginning to reveal that there is a connection.
All kidding aside, what we do with our bodies has a direct affect on our brains. If we play contact sports, we risk injuring more than just our limbs. If we abuse drugs and alcohol, we have the potential to pickle more than just our giblets. Our brains are starting to reveal more about us than we ever imagined they would; and this is only just the beginning. Could there be future explanations for other types of unsavoury behaviour, such as racism, ignorance, obsessive compulsiveness and mania? Add this to the list of things I hope to live to see.
Have a glorious weekend.