When forensic pathologist Dr. Bennet Omalu performed an autopsy on former Pittsburgh Steeler Mike “Iron Mike” Webster, he had no idea who the late NFL center was. Born in eastern Nigeria, Omalu knew nothing about American football, but he did know something was amiss in the 50-year-old’s body. Given his passion for neuropathology, Omalu began studying Webster’s brain. That’s when he discovered something alarming: chronic traumatic encephalopathy, severe brain damage caused by repeated blows to the head.
“It looked very abnormal,” Omalu says. “It was not something I was mentally aware of. I went to the library researching, trying to see if someone else had described it before, and no one else had ever described it.”
When Omalu made his discovery public, he was stunned by the backlash he faced from the NFL. At the time and in subsequent years, the league tried to stifle Omalu’s findings, which have now become accepted as fact in the medical and sports spheres.
Today, Omalu continues to bring awareness to CTE, and his life and efforts have become immortalized in books and in the recent film Concussion, which stars Will Smith as Omalu. NI.com chatted with Omalu about CTE and how the discovery of the disease altered the course of his life.
NI.com: What are the causes of CTE?
Dr. Omalu: CTE is the disease of the brain you suffer when you’re exposed to any type of blow to your head. It’s not just in football [but also] in motorcycle accidents, in industrial accidents, in child abuse, in assaults. When you suffer brain damage from such a blow, the brain damage is permanent because the brain does not have any reasonable ability to cure itself of any injury. In contact sports—with or without a helmet, with or without a concussion—when you expose your head and your brain to seemingly innocuous blows without any symptoms, over time those blows can cause permanent brain damage that would manifest in a constellation of symptoms, which are progressive.
What are the symptoms of CTE?
The symptoms could range from loss of intelligence, loss of judgment, loss of cognitive capacity, inability or diminution in the ability to engage in complex intellectual activity, mood disorders, rampant fluctuations in mood, exaggerated responses to life stresses, drug abuse, alcoholism, suicidal attempts, or suicide. Where this is very dangerous is you could receive these blows to your head over time without manifesting any symptoms whatsoever. But radiologically and neuropsychiatrically, when you’re tested, we could elicit evidence of damage.
Why was it important to you to share your findings with the world?
I came from Nigeria—Nigeria is a very corrupt country. I ran away from corruption and came here just to find out that the NFL was systemically and systematically concealing this fact from the players. The players in retirement were all suffering in obscurity. I found that very painful. I said, “Not in America, a country I have so much faith in.” … Using my education, I wanted to become a voice for the voiceless.
Did you expect such strong backlash from the NFL?
I did not. I thought, in the American spirit, I found something that was of value. I was excited. I was happy about it, and I wanted to take it to the NFL hoping they would open up their doors and invite me in. So I was shocked, amazed, and flabbergasted that the door was shut in my face and that they came after me. I had to stand firm on pushback. I’m a human being. I’m a son of God. Nobody’s better than me, I’m no better than anybody, but the truth will always prevail. I choose to stand by the truth.
What should people know about CTE?
People should be educated and enlightened so when they make the decision to play or not to play, they are making their own decision. You cannot make football safe; that would be a misappropriation of the facts. … But this is America. People have the freedom to do whatever they want. [And] we should embrace the facts and educate the people.
What further research do you believe still needs to be made?
To see if we can quantify the disease in living people. And then we should be focused on pharmacological interventions. I think that would be what would help us, if there were drugs and agents we could use to at least slow down the disease.
What does it feel like to have this event from your life become the subject of books and now a movie?
To be honest with you, this has never been about me. It’s about the truth and about the football players and their families who are suffering in silence. So it’s never been about me. I’m happy for them, I think they’ve been vindicated. I’m happy for the truth. The truth has been vindicated. I’m happy that Hollywood again is stepping up to become a very powerful agent of change. It’s a wonderful country. I’m happy for Hollywood. I’m happy for Will Smith. I’m happy for every family who has become a victim of this disease and the misappropriation of the truth and the science. I’m happy for the humanity of science because science should serve mankind, not mankind serving science.
What do you most enjoy about studying the brain?
The brain is such an interesting organ. The brain is like a very big, complex orchestra. When you’re looking at the brain microscopically, it’s unbelievable. I can’t describe it. The brain is a very spoiled organ. It’s like a spoiled child and yet a very sensitive child, and such a sensitive child needs very tender care. Whenever I look at the brain, I’m reminded of the might of God, the invincibility of God. That’s what the brain reminds me of. There are more than 200 billion cells in the brain. Can you imagine that?