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Former CFL players' brains used to study link between concussions and disease

Bobby Kuntz. The CFL player played for the Toronto Argonauts and the Hamilton Tiger Cats.

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Concussion stories from Bobby Kuntz's days with the Toronto Argonauts and the Hamilton Tiger-Cats made for family football folklore until a decade ago when they suddenly seemed bittersweet.

Mr. Kuntz, who suffered as many as 20 concussions playing football in the 1950s and 60s, developed a tremor and started to forget things. His golf game went and he had to give up his position as president and chief executive officer of his family's metal finishing business.

His symptoms were progressive, yet difficult to diagnose. His wife, Mary, took him down to the Mayo Clinic - he was in his late 60s - and doctors suggested Lewy Body dementia and Parkinson's.

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"The only way you'll ever find out if its Lewy Body disease is to have an autopsy," Mrs. Kuntz recalled the Mayo Clinic doctors telling her about a decade ago.

She had always planned on having her husband autopsied as she was concerned about whether her five living children were at risk of inheriting his brain disease. Ms. Kuntz wants to know if there is a link between repeated concussions and his Lewy Body disease, a progressive form of dementia, or Parkinson's, a degenerative disorder of the central nervous system with similar characteristics.

And she wanted to know whether concussions alone could have been responsible for his deterioration. By the time of his death on Feb. 7 at age 79, Mr. Kuntz was so incapacitated in a nursing home that he scarcely recognized family.

His brain now sits in a Toronto hospital, one of four obtained from Canadian Football League players over the past six months. They are part of a project seeking scientific proof on whether the often invisible injuries can stalk victims long after the game has been given up.

"We really have to find answers; it's one of the pressing issues in contact sports," said neurosurgeon Charles Tator, coordinator of the Krembil Neuroscience Centre Concussion Project at the Toronto Western Hospital. "What we're hoping is that this research will lead to some actual treatment."

Concussions - and the way they are managed - have sparked intense debate, most recently when NHL player Mikhail Grabovski was allowed to go back on the ice following two blows to the head that left him dazed. Doctors were disturbed he was able to return to the game without a thorough medical evaluation, but Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke said league protocol was followed.

It's an injury not exclusive to athletes: children and youth who play contact sports are suffering concussions - a jarring of the brain that can lead to dizziness, blurred vision, confusion and loss of consciousness - sparking worries over their future health.

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The Canadian Football League alumni association is working with Dr. Tator's group on the study, and it was a call to their alumni from Mr. Kuntz's son Joe that enabled them to contribute the football star's brain to the research.

"Our goal is to make sure that there is not misinformation; that we're not creating a panic," said Leo Ezerins, executive director of the Canadian Football League's alumni association. "...Right now, people think that if you get a concussion, you are going to get Alzheimer's and that's not the case. We want a proper perspective on this so we can do what we can to make the game safer."

This Canadian study follows work being done one done in Boston University School of Medicine, which has now analyzed the brains of more than 35 athletes and found evidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a progressive degenerative disease in 12 of 13 former NFL players. It also made a connection between repetitive head trauma played in collision sports with a devastating motor neuron disease, known as Lou Gehrig's disease.

The definitive mark of chronic traumatic encephalopathy disease are chunks of abnormal tau protein deposited in the brain, a finding that can only be made after it has been sliced, stained, then studied under a microscope.

Lili-Naz Hazrati, a neuropathologist at Toronto General Hospital, will examine the four brains for various proteins, including tau, which until recently, many believed was limited to boxers who suffered from punch-drunk syndrome.

"We are looking at the relationship between concussions and trauma to the head and brain disease," Dr. Hazrati said.

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She will also be looking for Lewy bodies - abnormal round structures that develop in regions of the brain involved in movement and thinking.

Results are expected in one to two months, but it is a complex process that will also involve looking at previous brain scans of Mr. Kuntz, as well as medical records.

Why some players can have multiple concussions with no long-lasting effects while others cannot is part of the mystery doctors are trying to unravel - that is why they hope to gather 100 brains over five years.

"He was getting his bell rung regularly," Joe Kuntz said of his father, who played both offence and defence. "He would tell stories of playing an entire game and not remembering any of the game."

Mr. Kuntz may have been short in stature, but he put a lot of effort into hitting people, which also contributed to his concussions, said his son. "He would take a mad run and put his head down," Joe said.

Dr. Tator, who is co-ordinating the study of all athletes, not just football players, said he hopes the study leads to new treatments.

"Repeated concussions don't cause this damage to everybody," said Dr. Tator. "So we need to determine why that is so."

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