This week, manager and friend of the late WWE wrestler Chyna told the New York Daily News that plans were in motion to turn over the wrestler’s brain for examination by Dr. Bennet Omalu, who was recently portrayed by Will Smith in the 2015 film “Concussion.”
According to reports, Chyna’s brain will be donated for research regarding the degenerative brain diseases chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).
Omalu, according to PBS’ Frontline, documented a number of NFL players with CTE in the early 2000s, publishing papers in Neurosurgery. After years of struggle, the NFL finally acknowledged that concussions do have long-term effects in 2009.
“I’m almost certain they will find CTE” in Chyna’s brain, Dr. Daniel Amen told R&D Magazine. Amen, who was a consultant on “Concussion,” has worked with Omalu in the past, and recently co-authored a paper with Omalu, which was published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease.
“Something else could have killed her, I’m sure, but likely she had CTE,” Amen said.
While brain damage is a concern for wrestlers, boxers, and mixed martial artists, Amen said the risk is particularly high for women in the sport.
“When I lecture, I say women are wired for leadership because their frontal lobe, the executive part of the brain, is more active than it is for males,” he said.
In 2013, researchers led by University of Pennsylvania’s Ragini Verma reported that after studying nearly 1,000 male and female adolescent brains, they found differences in the connectivity. “Males and females showed that greatest differences in inter-hemisphere brain connectivity” between the ages of 13- and 17-years-old, “with females having more connections between hemispheres primarily in the frontal lobe,” reported LiveScience.
For a woman, “a frontal lobe injury—think of a wrestler, or a boxer, or a mixed martial artists when they’re getting his in the forehead—it’s just more serious,” said Amen.
By training, Amen is a psychiatrist. But he started delving into brain imaging in 1991.
“Psychiatrists are the only medical doctors who do not look at the organ they treat, and I thought that was wrong,” he said. “One of the first lessons I learned was that mild traumatic brain injury ruins people’s lives, and nobody knew about it.”
Over the years, he’s published a variety of papers on the topic in publications like The Journal of Neuropsychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences, Translational Psychiatry, and the Journal of Psychoactive Drugs.
“This is an epidemic,” he said, noting that CTE doesn’t just affect professional athletes.
A few months ago, Mayo Clinic researchers studied 66 brains that came from men who played contact sports in high school, college, or at the semi-professional level. Thirty-two percent showed evidence of CTE.
But there is hope for those suffering from CTE, according to Amen.
“What’s exciting about our new study is you don’t have to wait until people are dead to see the damage,” he said.
Using a technique called cerebral perfusion imaging with single photon emission computed tomography (SPECT), Amen, Omalu, and colleagues examined 161 brains from retired and current NFL players. SPECT allowed them to monitor blood flow activity, and pinpoint areas with low blood flow. The researchers successfully distinguished NFL players with abnormal brain patterns from their control counterparts with between 92 and 94 percent accuracy.
Intervening before the disease takes hold can lead to better treatments, Omalu said in a statement.
“The one thing the movie didn’t do was show hope,” concluded Amen “And there is tremendous hope for most of these players and most people who have traumatic brain injury.”
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