SEATTLE — Neurologists from the University of Washington say a champion bull rider from British Columbia who died by suicide had a chronic brain condition.
Ty Pozzobon, 25, died in January and his family said they suspected his death was related to repeated head injuries and concussions sustained during his rodeo career.
The family donated his brain to the University of Washington’s school of medicine neuropathology in Seattle, where doctors concluded Pozzobon had chronic traumatic encephalopathy or CTE.
The university said in a news release tests also confirmed evidence of chronic traumatic axonal injury, a key predictor of head trauma and an injury Pozzobon was identified as having before his death.
The university said Pozzobon, who was from Merritt, is the first confirmed case of CTE in a professional bull rider.
Dr. C. Dirk Keene said in an interview CTE, which is only diagnosed post-mortem, has been found most commonly in professional and college football players, other contact sport athletes and military personnel.
Researchers’ understanding of the condition is still limited, said Keene, who is chair in neuropathology at the university.
People diagnosed with CTE are also frequently known to have suffered from mental health issues including depression and suicide, but the link between the conditions is unclear, he said.
Dr. Christine MacDonald, an associate professor of neurological surgery at the university, said brain injuries more broadly have been associated with mental health issues.
“It is repeatedly reported that there are increased incidents of mental health symptoms and psychiatric diagnosis following traumatic brain injury, so much so that nowadays they call it a co-morbid condition, meaning that the head injury happens and mental health or psychiatric symptoms follow,” she said.
Their findings can inform future research on prevention including helmet design and early screening of young athletes, MacDonald said.
Keene said more testing of Pozzobon’s brain tissue is expected to contribute to other studies on brain injuries that will ultimately improve the understanding of how and why CTE occurs.
Pozzobon’s family said the test results can help other athletes follow their passion but in a smarter way that includes listening to the advice of medical professionals.
“Ty’s passing has brought so much sorrow and pain to all, we hope everyone, specifically athletes, understand that we need to educate each other with regards to head injuries, both short- and long-term impacts,” the family said in a statement.
Pozzobon was the 2016 Professional Bull Riders Canada champion and a four-time world finalist finishing a career-high fourth last year.
Professional Bull Riders Canada says athlete health and welfare is of the utmost importance to the organization and it is continuing to work with other organizations and professionals to develop advanced protective equipment.
The organization is also finalizing a wellness program for competitors that includes mental health counselling, access to neurologists and general safety education that is expected to launch next year, it said in a statement.