NPR logo Neurologists: Lou Gehrig Did So Have Lou Gehrig's Disease


Neurologists: Lou Gehrig Did So Have Lou Gehrig's Disease

Lou Gehrig i

Lou Gehrig smacks a homer in a game between Major League stars and a Japanese all-star team. Hulton Archive/Hulton Archive/Getty Images hide caption

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Lou Gehrig

Lou Gehrig smacks a homer in a game between Major League stars and a Japanese all-star team.

Hulton Archive/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Even if you were kicking back at the beach around the middle of August, we're guessing you heard about some brain scientists saying maybe Lou Gehrig, the legendary Yankee, was never actually stricken with the neurological condition named for him.

During autopsies of two pro football players and a boxer who'd been diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (aka Lou Gehrig's disease) in life, the researchers found evidence for an altogether different disorder resulting from the cumulative effects of trauma.

Though the researchers didn't focus on Gehrig in their scientific paper, he was all over the popular accounts of the findings. "Here he is, the face of his disease, and he may have had a different disease as a result of his athletic experience," Dr. Ann McKee, a neuropathologist on the research team told the New York Times.

The proposition that the Iron Horse, a bull-headed college football player and tough-as-nails baseball slugger, never had Lou Gehrig's disease was, well, mind-boggling. And now a group of neurologists says it was wrong for anyone to suggest that was the case.

A diagnosis of ALS is reached clinically — by observing signs and symptoms, such as the progressive loss of voluntary movement, three neurologists write in an editorial to be published in the December issue of the journal Muscle & Nerve.

They rattle off reasons why they're unconvinced that chronic, repetitive trauma to the brain could fully explain Gehrig's condition and the illness of others since then. They conclude:

Gehrig was definitively diagnosed with ALS by all the clinical criteria we have noted. What caused his ALS is as unclear today as it was in his time.

In their view, the full body of available scientific evidence doesn't support the idea that head injuries, either single or repeated ones, increase the risk for ALS. And a report on three patients isn't enough to shift the balance.

In fact, they write, the report about the three patients that got the debate rolling this August probably had two different diseases — chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) and ALS.

Gehrig is long gone, and his remains were cremated. The editorialists note:

Whether head trauma may have played a role in Gehrig's development of ALS can never be verified, but it is a complete disservice to his place in history as an icon for ALS to suggest that his disease was not ALS.

A coauthor of the study that made waves in August, Dr. Robert Cantu, told the Boston Globe the group stands by its work and that their scientific paper never said Gehrig didn't die from ALS.

"We did say that he did have a history of five recorded concussions because he played football at Columbia, where he took a lot of subconcussive brain traumas," Cantu told the Globe. "Nobody really knows for sure if this was ALS or CTE because his spinal cord was never studied."



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