A group of doctors is questioning recent research by Boston-based scientists who concluded that athletes with multiple head injuries may be prone to developing a disabling neurological disease similar to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as ALS or Lou Gehrig's disease.
The doctors said the study by researchers from Boston University School of Medicine and the Veterans Administration Hospital in Bedford lacked clinical evidence to conclude that three athletes, believed to have died from ALS, actually died from a different disease, known as CTE, or chronic traumatic encephalopathy.
The doctors' comments are published today in an editorial in the journal Muscle & Nerve.
"Their 3 patients with CTE and ALS most likely had two different diseases, namely CTE and ALS," wrote lead author Dr. Stanley H. Appel, chairman of the department of neurology at the Methodist Hospital in Texas.
The Boston researchers said in a study published in August that they pinpointed evidence of a new disease that mimics ALS in the brains of two former National Football League players previously thought to have died of ALS. They also found the new disease in the brain of a deceased professional boxer who was a military veteran.
They also speculated that athletes and some others previously diagnosed with ALS actually had the related syndrome - perhaps even Gehrig himself, the New York Yankees star who is the iconic ALS sufferer.
Appel and his colleagues said that those comments were perhaps the most troubling.
"What is most disconcerting to our ALS patients is the implication that they may have been misdiagnosed," he wrote. "They also want our input as to whether Lou Gehrig really had ALS."
It's a mystery that will never be solved, because Gehrig's body was cremated.
Dr. Robert Cantu, a co-author of the Boston study and co-director of the Center for the Study of Chronic Encephalopathy at Boston University, said the group stands by its work. He said their study did not conclude Gehrig did not die from ALS.
“We did say that he did have a history of five recorded concussions because he played football at Columbia, where he took a lot of subconcussive brain traumas," Cantu said. "Nobody really knows for sure if this was ALS or CTE because his spinal cord was never studied."
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