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Junior Seau's family talks to elders about brain study

By Alan Duke, CNN
updated 5:36 AM EDT, Tue May 8, 2012
Junior Seau, 43, died of a gunshot wound at his Oceanside, California, home last week.
Junior Seau, 43, died of a gunshot wound at his Oceanside, California, home last week.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • A decision on a brain study is "on hold" while Seau's family consults Samoan cultural elders
  • Researchers want to study the NFL veteran's brain, a close friend says
  • Seau, 43, died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound at his Oceanside, California, home
  • There's speculation about if hits to his head during his football career were a factor

Los Angeles (CNN) -- A decision on if researchers can study Junior Seau's brain for clues to the NFL veteran's suicide will wait until his family meets with elders from their Samoan culture, his family said Monday.

Seau, 43, died of a gunshot wound at his Oceanside, California, home wound last week in what the coroner concluded was a suicide.

There has been speculation about whether repeated hits to his head over his 20-year pro football career could have been a contributing factor.

Seau's parents, who are from the island of Aunu'u, American Samoa, were meeting Monday with Samoan elders, according to Shawn Mitchell, who was Seau's pastor.

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"The Seau family is currently revisiting several important family decisions and placing them on hold in order to confer with their elders," a family statement said. "All possibilities are being considered, but none will be acted upon until the Seaus arrive at an agreed upon direction."

While there was no evidence Seau suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative disease brought on by multiple concussions, friends and family have stepped forward to say the legendary linebacker suffered a number of hits to the head during his career.

Researchers have contacted the Seau family to request the opportunity to study his brain, Mitchell said last week.

While Mitchell did not identify the researchers making the requests, among the institutions the family could donate Seau's brain to is Boston University's Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, the research center that found former Chicago Bears safety Dave Duerson suffered degenerative damage to his brain because of repeated hits.

Duerson committed suicide, shooting himself in the chest in 2011 and leaving a suicide note that said he wanted his brain studied for possible damage.

While Seau left no such note, he did aim the handgun at his chest.

"Him taking the shot to the chest makes sense that he would want his head examined," Mitchell said.

As a linebacker, Seau played "the most havoc-ridden position on the team. He suffered many concussions, so there is a strong sense that it played a role," said Mitchell, who is also the chaplain for the San Diego Chargers, the team for which Seau played 13 seasons.

Seau's death follows last month's suicide of former Atlanta Falcons safety Ray Easterling, the lead plaintiff in a class action lawsuit against the NFL over concussion-related injuries. The lawsuit names more than 1,000 professional players.

Both Easterling and Duerson exhibited symptoms of repetitive head trauma: memory lapses, anger and deep depression, according to family and friends. And in both cases, researchers found signs of brain trauma.

The NFL has repeatedly dismissed the lawsuit's allegations that the league concealed links between football and brain injuries, saying player safety is a priority. "Any allegation that the NFL intentionally sought to mislead players has no merit," it said.

Seau does not appear to have participated in any of the pending lawsuits against the NFL.

CNN's chief medical correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, warned against drawing a conclusion in Seau's case, though he said there are striking similarities between his death and other cases involving football players.

The only way to determine if Seau suffered CTE is to analyze the brain tissue for "hallmarks of the dementia-like disease," Gupta said.

"We can't know," unless Seau's brain is analyzed in this way, whether his death was related to CTE, he said.

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