Dave Mirra was, simply, a BMX legend. The long-time vert ramp and park rider medaled at every X-Games save one over the course of fifteen years before going on to start his own bike company, MirraCo, win the Race Across America as part of a four-man team, and race rally cars for Subaru USA.
Training and competing at such a high level inevitably means crashing – and Mirra suffered countless concussions over the years. Following his suicide earlier this year, his family chose to have his brain examined by a University of Toronto neuropathologist, suspicious that some of his end-of life behavior may have been trauma-related. The diagnosis was chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE.
According to a yesterday’s story in ESPN The Magazine, “Mirra’s brain showed abnormal tau protein deposits — chronic traumatic encephalopathy’s trademark — in the frontal and temporal lobes [of the brain]. ‘It’s assumed it is related to multiple concussions that happened years before,’ Hazrati says.” This makes Mirra the first action sports athletes to be diagnosed with the disease.
Tau protein is found in greatest abundance in neurons in the central nervous system, and normally perform a critical stabilisation function within the cells. Abnormal tau protein is a hallmark of a variety of neurodegenerative disorders; it’s a marker for Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease, and high levels of Tau protein in cerebrospinal fluid is linked to poor recovery after head trauma.
Most closely associated in the public’s eyes with boxers and American football players, CTE is thought to be the result of repeated head injuries. Towards the end of his life, Mirra’s wife Lauren noted the sort of change in behavior, intensity, and mood that is often seen in CTE sufferers. While any suicide is difficult to unravel, Lauren maintains that he was sick and “not in his right mind” when Dave took his own life.
Read more of Lauren’s interview here – it’s sobering stuff. And protect your heads, boys and girls.