Former NHLer Scott Thornton says there’s a running joke in his house with his wife and children about how bad his memory is sometimes. In 941 NHL games he had “seven or eight” documented concussions and reckons “definitely double figures” of brain trauma injuries that went undetected and untreated. There are times when that running joke is not so funny, times when Thornton wonders how much damage was done to his brain during his career.
“Your wife or one of your kids will say, ‘Do you remember last weekend when we were talking about this?’ And you would have zero recollection of that conversation. Zero,” Thornton said. “It doesn’t even vaguely ring a bell. And you say, ‘I don’t remember talking about that,’ and they say, ‘Yeah, we talked about it for 20 minutes.’ And that’s where it gets real. Then you start thinking, ‘Why don’t I remember that? Did I black out when we were talking about it?’ ”
That was part of the reason why Thornton took part in a recently published study by the Baycrest Health Sciences’ Rotman Research Institute in Toronto that found that former professional hockey players were free of significant mental impairment on tests of cognitive function, but displayed a high level of behavioral and emotional problems in subjective tests. That was certainly the case for Thornton, who said his cognitive functions tracked very well, but anecdotally he said there are times when he forgets things and is irritable and anxious.
So what does all of this tell us? Well, it actually further muddies what are already very murky waters when it comes to the relationship between brain trauma and its effects on people. This study found no smoking gun, nothing that would help or hurt either side in the ongoing concussion lawsuit involving about 100 former players against the NHL. For the record, Thornton is not a part of that lawsuit, so he has no axe to grind here. And aside from using the NHL Alumni Association to notify its members about the study, the Rotman Research Institute was acting independently, so there’s nobody here with a skin in the game or with an agenda to promote.
Which makes this study all the more important. The study, which has been ongoing since 2010, tested 33 former professional players with varying degrees of concussion histories against a focus group of 18 people who had no history of playing contact sports at a high level. On objective testing, the players were found to have no significant brain impairment. But in subjective testing, they reported an elevated rate of psychiatric disorders. But it’s very important to note that there was absolutely no correlation between the extent or the number of head injuries and the level of psychiatric impairment.
“In terms of the self-reported complaints, we could not find a relationship between those complaints and the number of concussions,” said Dr. Brian Levine, a neuropsychologist and senior scientist at the Rotman Research Institute and professor of Psychology and Medicine at the University of Toronto. “The brain and mental and cognitive functioning and dementia, this is all very complicated stuff. I’ve seen some people try to boil it down to a single message and it’s not accurate. How do you explain our findings? Is it concussion? Maybe, but we’re not seeing strong evidence of that.”
Dr. Levine also reported that the players he tested did not experience a significant accelerated or pathological aging in terms of their brains. Once the researchers accounted for normal aging and its effects on the brain, it didn’t see any relationship between the age of the players and cognitive impairment. “The older players were doing basically as well as the younger players after you statistically account for the fact that they’re older people,” Levine said. “It sort of muddles the answer.”
And it probably would disappoint those looking for concrete answers on one side or the other of the debate. For his part, Thornton said he participated in the study for his own knowledge, but he also wanted to do his part to see if he could help other players who are struggling. He also made a point of saying that of all the concussions he had as a player, he can recall only one of them being from a fight. According to hockeyfights.com, Thornton fought 90 times during his NHL career, but there were others in the 114 games he played in the minors and the 168 games he played in junior hockey.
“All of the other concussions, the documented ones for sure, were either from whiplash from a hit where I got a shoulder to my chest, or it was light little elbows in a puck battle in the corner,” Thornton said. “And I think it’s important because a lot of the fighters have been talked about a lot more than other guys. No doubt those guys suffer and have suffered, but, man, this is a league-wide thing. This isn’t just a fourth-line problem.”
Although there is no known treatment for chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), Dr. Levine pointed out that some of the things these athletes are experiencing – such as depression and anxiety – can be treated. Thornton is focussed on the healing process if there is indeed one, including changes in nutrition, fitness and sleep patterns.
“These are the things I’m hoping can prove to be a positive way to heal brain trauma,” Thornton said. “And if it turns out that it doesn’t matter, at least we found that out, too.”