Before he died of a heart condition at age 25, Michael Keck told his wife that he wanted to donate his brain to Boston University. The former football player thought he had chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), NBC News reports, the degenerative brain disorder caused by repeated blows to the head that has made headlines in recent years for affecting NFL players. Doctors, performing an autopsy on Keck's brain, confirmed his self-diagnosis in a case study published Monday in JAMA Neurology. "It was the worst CTE I've seen in an individual this young," study coauthor Dr. Ann McKee says. Keck's 16-year football career began when he was 6 years old, the study notes. During that time, he sustained more than 10 concussions, the first when he was 8. "That's a lengthy exposure," says McKee. "Brain injury is cumulative."
As a freshman playing for Missouri State, Keck momentarily lost consciousness after a hard hit. That was followed by symptoms, such as blurry vision, headaches, and forgetfulness, which forced him to quit playing football his junior year. Previously having a 3.8 GPA, the study notes, Keck "left school with a GPA of 1.9, 12 credits short of earning his bachelor degree." Symptoms, including "feelings of worthlessness" and "suicidal ideations," persisted until his 2013 death of an unrelated congenital heart defect. Some, including the doctor who first identified CTE, have called for an end of high-impact sports for kids. Others, though, say the concern is overblown. The medical director for Pop Warner football tells NBC that the Keck study doesn't indicate the brain trauma was the result of childhood injuries. "It is more likely that the exposure that he got in high school or college, or even doing other activities, led to the accrual of CTE changes," he says. (Researchers recently found CTE in 96% of 91 deceased NFL players.)