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Brain scans reveal soccer player who died in 2020 had CTE, the brain disease that's rocked the NFL

INSIDER logo INSIDER 7/1/2022 insider@insider.com (Jake Johnson)
Scott Vermillion Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images © Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images Scott Vermillion Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
  • Former Major League Soccer player, Scott Vermillion, has been posthumously diagnosed with CTE.
  • CTE is a progressive brain condition believed to be caused by repeated impacts to the head.
  • Researchers said Vermillion's death highlights risks associated with soccer, not just high contact sports like American football.

A US soccer player who died in 2020 is the first to be officially diagnosed with CTE, a debilitating brain disorder more commonly associated with contact sports, like football.

The family of Scott Vermillion, who played for Major League Soccer (MLS) teams including the Kansas City Wizards, revealed Tuesday that he was diagnosed with stage 2 CTE by researchers at the Boston University CTE Center. It's the same center that diagnosed Aaron Hernandez, the NFL player who died by suicide after being convicted of murder. Hernandez had stage 4 CTE, the most severe case ever seen in someone in their 20s, according to BU.

CTE (or, chronic traumatic encephalopathy) is a progressive brain condition that is thought to be caused by repeated blows to the head.

While the condition can only be diagnosed by autopsy, people with CTE often suffer in life from memory loss, lack of impulse control, aggression, forms of dementia, suicidal ideation, and anxiety, Dr. Chris Nowinski, a neuroscientist and former football player, told Insider.

Vermillion died in December of 2020 from an accidental drug overdose at the age of 44, 19 years after the end of his professional career in 2001. His diagnosis adds to growing concerns about soccer's role in the development of the disease through repeated headers.

In the press release, Vermillion's family said the former player suffered from many of the mood changes associated with CTE after the end of his professional soccer career.

Cami Jones, Vermillion's ex-wife, told The New York Times that she watched Vermillion become more lethargic and prone to headaches even before he retired. In the ten years following his career, Vermillion's family reported increased impulse control issues, aggressiveness, and depression. These symptoms slowly worsened in the last decade of Vermillion's life as he experienced memory loss and struggled more and more with substance abuse, Jones told the Times. Vermillion's mother reached out to the BU's CTE Center soon after her son's death to have his brain examined by researchers, the Times reported. 

Experts told Insider that early detection of abnormalities through MRI brain scans, and reducing how often athletes are exposed to head trauma, can help address the condition. 

Researchers are calling for pre-season psych testing to catch cases early

Although cases of CTE have most notably been linked with contact sports like American football, Vermillion's diagnosis, along with a 2017 study from University College London on CTE in ex-soccer players, revealed the disease may be more pervasive than previously thought in soccer as well.

"Yes, we have much more experience with American football players, we've now had hundreds and hundreds of players with CTE in American football. But we also do get American soccer players, ice hockey, rugby, wrestling, MMA, boxing, and we've definitely increasingly seen that CTE is a potential risk of playing soccer," said Dr. Ann Mckee, director of the Boston University CTE Center as well as chief of neuropathology for the VA Boston Healthcare System.

McKee, who conducted some of the most important research on CTE over the last decade and has diagnosed most of the high-profile CTE cases in NFL players to date, believes that pre- and post-season testing through neuropsychological exams, MRIs, and biomarkers could be a positive next step in addressing the condition.

"There's numerous studies now showing that in soccer, rugby, ice hockey, football, active players develop changes that can be detected after a single season. But we don't, as a rule, look for these. And you don't find a problem if you ignore it. And that's sort of the standard approach right now," McKee said.

Put an age limit on heading for young soccer players, one neuroscientist says

Nowinski told Insider that addressing CTE means limiting the amount of head impact players take throughout their life. He suggests raising the recommended minimum age at which children can start heading from 11 to 14 under United States Soccer Federation rules, which would give their brains more time to develop.

For anyone who believes they are suffering from CTE, there are steps you can take to treat your symptoms, says Nowinski.

"We can't yet stop the disease, but, depending on what you're dealing with, if it is caused by CTE, it likely can be made better,"  he said.

Doctors can help patients who are experiencing problems with memory, mood, anxiety, and sleep with medications, skill developments, and treatment, Nowinski said. Resources like the Concussion Legacy Foundation Helpline can help.

Read the original article on Insider
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