Concussions and the Self

This morning, my roommate asked me if I had heard about how researchers had discovered that Derek Boogaard, a professional NHL player, had similar brain injuries to those found in football players. At the time, I was unaware of these findings but I did a little bit of investigating…

Boogaard died last May from a drug overdose. The articles I found about him repeatedly noted that he was well-known in the NHL for his aggressive fighting on the ice. His brain, like many other professional football and hockey players’, was donated to the VA Brain Bank following his death. Researchers at Boston University’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy have found that like many NFL players, Boogaard suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). CTE is a progressive brain disease that is characterized by the accumulation of the tau protein, leading to memory loss, confusion, and depression. The aspect of the CTE that I found to be most interesting and related to our ongoing discussion of the self is the fact that CTE is caused by multiple head injuries, for example concussions.

In this video from this morning’s Good Morning America, one doctor describes concussions and their effects on the brain. Interestingly enough, he specifically states that there are no structural changes that appear on CAT scans or MRIs as a result of concussions. Seconds later he explains that most concussions diagnoses in athletes come from an individual’s teammates expressing concern that the individual is “not acting right.” In other words, the teammates are worried that the individual is not acting like him/herself.

But wait, how can this make sense? We’ve spent hours discussing how our self all boils down to the structure of our brain, specifically our synapses. LeDoux tells us that our synapses are who we are. So, how can these concussed athletes not be acting like themselves but researchers are struggling to find structural changes in the brain? Shouldn’t they be finding issues at the neuron’s synapses, whether it’s neurotransmitters, receptors, or overall functioning? Well there is substantial evidence that concussions affect cerebral blood flow, altering it for as long as a month after the initial injury. So is this change in blood flow changing the athletes’ ability to act like themselves? The video certainly seems to suggest so. Does this mean that we’ve forgotten to discuss a huge dimension of the self: blood flow? By the end of Synaptic Self, LeDoux had definitely convinced me of the significance of synapses, but I wonder what he would say about the role of blood…

3 thoughts on “Concussions and the Self

  1. Isn’t this where Tory Gray works?
    Interesting post Taylor, I looked up CTE on wikipedia because I wondered how they diagnosed it post-mortem and it said that there is “characteristic degeneration of brain tissue and the accumulation of tau protein”. I know that tau plays a huge role in Alzheimer’s, and that may not necessarily show up on an MRI or CAT scan. Interesting point about blood though!


  2. I wonder if the change in blood flow affects the how the neurons fire? That could be another way that blood flow could affect the synapses without showing up on an MRI. Interesting post!


  3. That’s an interesting point, KK! I received several concussions from various winter activities my freshman janplan. I had to leave campus and go home to sleep in a dark space because thinking in order to respond to a simple question actually hurt my head. I became so aware and so grateful for the amount of processes my brain must perform on a daily basis!!

    I also think it is important to remember that he was an extremely agressive player and he died of a drug overdose. Clearly he had several epigenetic risks for CTE.


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