Junior Seau was a star NFL linebacker with a 20-year career playing for the San Diego Chargers, Miami Dolphins and New England Patriots. In 2012, at age 43, he shot himself in the chest instantly ending his life. An autopsy found no substances in Seau’s system, and the San Diego County medical examiner did not find brain trauma. So, what drove the successful linebacker to take his own life?
To better answer that question, Seau’s survivors sent samples of his brain to be evaluated and a panel of brain specialists confirmed Seau did, in fact, suffer brain trauma. A 2016 case study outlined the factors that lead to Seau’s death — the longtime football player suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). The following year, in a New York Times report, a neuropathologist examined 111 brains of former NFL players and all but one showed signs of CTE. While the medical community grapples with how to address CTE and other neurological issues that stem from sports injuries, there is a growing body of research that cannabis could help address the symptoms CTE in professional athletes like Seau.
What is CTE?
CTE is a degenerative disease of the brain linked to head injuries. The symptoms of CTE are wide-ranging and sometimes severe: mood swings, aggression, depression, confusion, and dementia. For some CTE sufferers, these symptoms culminate in suicidal thoughts and attempts.
The disease is prevalent in athletes, especially football players, with one study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association reporting that 99 percent of deceased NFL players had CTE. Among the football players in the study were Kevin Turner, a Philadelphia Eagles fullback who died of CTE at age 46, and Scott Ross, a New Orleans Saints linebacker who died at age 45.
Jesse Mez, a professor of neurology at Boston University, said he believes that the repeated blows to the head common among football players trigger CTE. Mez, who led the research team that identified the 99 percent statistic noted in an article on the Boston University website that “the data suggest that there is a very likely relationship between exposure to football and risk of developing the disease.” What can be done to protect football players whose brains are in constant peril on the field?
Diagnosing and treating CTE
CTE poses an unusual challenge to physicians: the disease can only be diagnosed post-mortem. Those who suspect they may be living with the disease have limited treatment options available, such as behavioural therapy to ease mood swings and memory exercises to improve cognitive function. Massage and acupuncture may be utilized as pain management tools in suspected cases of CTE, according to Cleveland Clinic.
The inability to diagnose CTE in living patients, combined with limited treatment options creates a need to stop the disease from ever striking. To prevent CTE, the Mayo Clinic recommends reduced exposure to head injuries such as concussions, which is no easy feat for a professional football player.
Cannabis and CTE
Meanwhile, some football players are turning to cannabis to manage their symptoms, including pain.
In her article, “The Neuroprotective Properties of Cannabinoids,” Dr. Bonni Goldstein, the medical director of Canna-Centers Wellness & Education and medical adviser to Weedmaps, elaborated: “If a person suffering from pain uses cannabis medicine, pain is often minimized or eliminated.” But researchers are studying whether cannabis may be able to treat more than pain, even possibly halting CTE from occurring after a head injury.
One Israeli study on rats and mice with head trauma found that endocannabinoids increased blood flow and circulation in the brain, thus boosting tissue health and reducing brain damage.
Another study on rats, published in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences in 2000, found that cannabis had neuroprotective qualities as an antioxidant. Retired NFL player Kyle Turley, who said he suffers from traumatic brain injury (TBI), was a friend of Junior Seau and is now an advocate of cannabis as a preventative measure for CTE.
“If we want to save football, then we’ve got to start looking at solutions, not just count concussions. Cannabis is that potential saviour,” Turley shared in an interview with Freedom Leaf.
Some medical experts are in agreement with Turley. Bill Kinney, a chemist, told Sports Illustrated in an article published July 12, 2016, “CBD has an amazing amount of potential. Think about this: What if a football player could just take a pill that is non-psychoactive before the game and now have a greater level of protection against brain injury? What could be better than that?”
The “pill” Kinney references is the brainchild of KannaLife Sciences, a phytomedical (plant-based medicine remedies) company for which he serves as chief scientific officer. The company has spearheaded efforts in CBD therapeutics, including the development of a synthetically derived cannabis pill that would aim to prevent CTE.
KannaLife is not the first company to develop a CBD-based medicine to treat neurological conditions. GW Pharmaceuticals already has FDA approval and the product is on the market and available since November 2018. This CBD-based medicine, Epidiolex, was designed to treat pediatric epilepsy, and the results are encouraging, Goldstein said.
“I have a few patients who have just started this product,” she said. “Studies show it is effective for some (not all) children with the two types of epilepsies that it is approved for.”
Goldstein is equally optimistic about cannabis as a treatment for traumatic brain injuries.
“As a clinician, I have seen many patients struggling to recover from TBI and I can attest that cannabis medicine has profound positive effects,” she said. “Patients report restorative sleep, emotional balance, and an overall sense of well-being with cannabis.”
Further, Goldstein cited a study published in The American Surgeon as evidence that the benefits of cannabis for treating traumatic brain injury go beyond CBD. The 2014 study revealed lower mortality levels for brain injury patients who tested positive for THC, indicating that they recently used marijuana. Whether cannabis medicines will continue to receive FDA approval and be integrated into mainstream medicine remains to be seen.
The future of preventing CTE with cannabis
With no reliable diagnosis or treatment for CTE, cannabis could offer a glimmer of hope to athletes, particularly football players, who have endured head trauma. Scientists have expressed encouragement about treating neurological conditions, such as epilepsy and autism, with some form of the plant.
For now, retired NFL players such as Turley are turning to cannabis to cope with a disease that other medical applications have yet to conquer.