During the 2010 Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) World Cup, it seemed to me that as much of the commentary was devoted to the vuvuzela as it was to football (known as soccer here in the US). Most fans seemed to either embrace or despise this ~60cm elongated plastic horn, which is popular in many African and Asian countries and can generate noise levels of up to 127 decibels—approximately equal to the pain threshold. I was first exposed to the vuvuzela while half-heartedly watching the 2010 FIFA World Cup as my British husband tried to explain the rules of the game. I don’t remember much about the game of football/soccer, but I do remember the loud, unrelenting and monotonous sound of those ubiquitous plastic horns. I couldn’t quite fathom the instrument’s popularity for several reasons: 1) The cacophony in the stadium drowned out any hope of hearing the commentators, 2) the instrument seemed to allow no variation in pitch or tone and 3) I felt sorry for the players and fans in the stadium who were being subjected to the ear-splitting noise, even though the fans seemed to be loving every minute of it. Perhaps I would have come down on the other side of the vuvuzela fence if I were more of a football/soccer fan and had been caught up in the fanfare associated with sport’s biggest contest, but I will admit that I was one of the vuvuzela haters.
In February of 2011, tragedy struck when Dave Duerson, a former Chicago Bears football player, committed suicide by shooting himself (1). However, Dave was not alone; his suicide joined the suicides and other violent endings to former and current football players such as Andre Waters (Philadelphia Eagles, Arizona Cardinals), Owen Thomas (U. Pennsylvania), and Kenny McKinley (Pittsburgh Steelers).
One could shrug off the deaths of these players are simple coincidence, if not for an elusive, yet chilling, central theme found in the depths of their brains: small, yet insidious, neurofibrillary tangles containing the microtubule-associated protein tau. Such tau-containing tangles are the molecular hallmarks of frontotemporal dementia (FTD) or Alzheimer’s Disease-riddled brains. The brains of people who are not diagnosed with FTD or Alzheimer’s Disease do not contain these tau tangles.
If that is the case, why in the world were Dave Dueson, Andre Waters, Owen Thomas and Kenny McKinley found to have these tau tangles? Continue reading “What Does Tau Protein Have to Do with Football, Dementia, and Suicide?”