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CTE may have played role in suicide of college football player Owen Thomas

September 20, 2010

Chronic traumatic encephalopathy didn't receive much media buzz until University of Pennsylvania football player Owen Thomas committed suicide before a game seemingly out of the blue in April.

Boston University researchers this month confirmed that an autopsy of the 21-year-old's brain showed early signs of the disease typically found in NFL athletes with a history of repetitive head trauma. Researchers were quick to underscore that it's impossible to definitively say that CTE, as it's called, caused the suicide, but the findings offered some explanation for the unusual behavior Thomas began to display before he hanged himself.

"His death was a huge shock for me and my family," his mom, the Rev. Katherine Brearley, told Devon Lash of the Morning Call in Allentown, Penn. "We'd only known the day before he died when we were talking to him on the phone that this was not the usual Owen on the phone, and the next day, he killed himself. So the news supplied — because we really can't say definitively — a missing piece of why a young man who seemed to have everything to live for could perhaps so suddenly take his life without reaching out for help." To read the entire interview go to "Newsmaker Q&A: Rev. Katherine Brearley."

CTE isn't new, say scientists at Boston University's Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy; it's been on doctors' radar since the 1920s when mostly boxers suffered from memory loss, confusion, impaired judgment and other symptoms of the disease now linked to brain trauma. The center studies postmortem brain and spinal cord tissue in hopes of finding a diagnostic test for CTE. --Mary Forgione

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