Head-trauma researchers want to study Benoit's brain

Updated: June 30, 2007, 9:57 AM ET
By Peter Keating and Shaun Assael | ESPN The Magazine

The double-murder and suicide involving pro wrestler Chris Benoit, already marked by a series of bizarre developments, is taking another macabre turn.

Researchers involved with the study of brain trauma in deceased NFL players are seeking permission to look at Benoit's brain to try to learn whether head trauma might have played a role in Benoit's condition.

"We don't know, but we would like to find out," said Julian Bailes, chairman of neurosurgery at the University of West Virginia and medical director of the Center for the Study of Retired Athletes. "We could be talking about the effects of head trauma, or the effects of head trauma in conjunction with substance abuse, or something else.

Chris Benoit
AP Photo/WWE, HOBrain-trauma researchers believe Chris Benoit might have suffered the kind of concussion-related dementia that marked some NFL players' declines.
"We have seen repeated concussions associated with changes in the brain. These are abnormal changes in former football players who behaved in extreme and destructive ways. We need to ask if this is part of the same syndrome."

The researchers -- the same group who conducted postmortems on former NFL players Andre Waters and Justin Strzelczyk -- believe it is possible Benoit suffered the kind of concussion-related dementia that marked the other athletes' declines.

A source told ESPN.com, however, that even if the researchers' request is granted, the brain might be too damaged to examine. By the time police found Benoit's body on Monday, it had been lying in the 93-degree heat for at least a day. According to a source familiar with the local coroner's exam, it was virtually "liquefied." Still, the researchers hope they can obtain enough tissue to determine whether repeated concussions damaged Benoit's brain and perhaps played a role in his behavior.

Early reports in the Benoit case focused on the possibility that anabolic steroids, which were found in Benoit's home in Fayetteville, Ga., might have contributed to the tragedy by causing "roid rage" in the veteran wrestler known as "The Canadian Crippler." On Wednesday night, federal agents raided the office of Dr. Phil Astin, a Carrollton, Ga., physician who reportedly had prescribed testosterone for Benoit.

Benoit committed suicide on Sunday, the day he was supposed to wrestle a pay-per-view event in Houston. He already had strangled his wife, Nancy, and son, Daniel, and placed Bibles next to each victim. Police were notified when Benoit sent a series of cryptic text messages telling co-workers about his location and where they could find his dogs.

Despite speculation about his steroid use, Benoit was never one of the bulkiest wrestlers in the business. In fact, his gimmick was his workmanship. Benoit's signature move was an aerial leap off the top of the ring post, which sent him airborne toward his opponent, who invariably was lying on the mat. It was designed to look as if he were spearing his rival. But Benoit pulled up just before impact, absorbing most of the stress himself. That caused his neck to become so fragile that he underwent surgery in 2001 to fuse his vertebrae. It kept him out of wrestling for nearly a year.

When he returned, he resumed the move and continued to take repeated shots to the head with chairs, said Mike Mooneyham, co-author of "Sex, Lies, and Headlocks," a book about the WWE. "His friends told him to lay off, but that wasn't Chris," Mooneyham says.

Scientists are still trying to piece together the links between blows to the head, physical changes to the brain and cognitive impairment, which can lead to depression, memory loss and abnormal behavior. Doctors affiliated with the NFL have heatedly denied a connection between football-related concussions and full-blown chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the dementia seen in punch-drunk boxers.

Bennet Omalu, a Pittsburgh pathologist, examined Waters' brain after the former NFL player committed suicide in November. Omalu found that Waters' brain looked as if it belonged to an 85-year-old man with signs of Alzheimer's disease. Omalu also found unusual tangles in the brain and concluded that multiple concussions had caused, or severely worsened, Waters' neurological problems. Last month, Omalu also examined Strzelczyk, who died in a massive car wreck in 2004, and found the same tangles he had seen in Waters.

Now, Bailes, Omalu and Christopher Nowinski, a former professional wrestler who obtained permission to examine Waters' brain and who worked with Benoit, have formed the Sports Legacy Institute to formalize the postmortem study of athletes' brains. If samples from Benoit become available, the group will get a chance to see where one wrestler's brain fits into the overall spectrum of the long-term effects of concussions.

"The first reports were that it was in no condition to be looked at," said a source familiar with the group's request, "but there's still a possibility a sample could be retrieved."

Peter Keating and Shaun Assael are senior writers for ESPN The Magazine. Assael is also the co-author of "Sex, Lies, and Headlocks: The Real Story of Vince McMahon and World Wrestling Entertainment," which is available here.

Peter Keating is a senior writer at ESPN The Magazine, where he covers investigative and statistical subjects. He started writing "The Biz," a column looking at sports business from the fan's point of view, in 1999. He also coordinates the Magazine's annual "Ultimate Standings" project, which ranks all pro franchises according to how much they give back to fans. His work on concussions in football has earned awards from the Deadline Club, the New York Press Club and the Center for the Study of Sport in Society.
• Senior writer for ESPN The Magazine
• Author of "Wide Open: Days and Nights on the NASCAR Tour"; the New York Times best-selling "Sex, Lies and Headlocks"; and "Steroid Nation"

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