The National Football League (NFL) will help financially support a research initiative to understand the nature of traumatic brain injury and better diagnose concussions. The program will be run by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which has selected eight projects that will aim to understand how the brain changes after head injury and multiple concussions.
“We need to be able to predict which patterns of injury are rapidly reversible and which are not. This program will help researchers get closer to answering some of the important questions about concussion for our youth who play sports and their parents,” Story Landis, director of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), said in an announcement.
The NFL has gained negative publicity with regard to how they have handled the incidence of concussions and its effect on current as well as retired players. High profile players have displayed symptoms that have been associated with repeated head injury and concussions, ranging from memory loss to suicide — albeit not without the causation-versus-correlation debate. Coverage of the issue has described how the league initially denied the evident health toll the high-impact sport was having on players for the sake of protecting business interests.
For instance, approximately eight years ago, Bennet Omalu, a forensic pathologist and associate clinical professor in the UC Davis Department of Medical Pathology, discovered chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) — a form of progressive brain degeneration — after conducting autopsies on a retired football player. When Omalu published his findings and associated the illness he discovered with repeated mild traumatic brain injury incurred during a football career, NFL doctors immediately attempted to discredit him and his finding. Altogether, Omalu has claimed that all NFL players he has examined displayed a certain degree of CTE while the NFL has conceded that this is something that needs to be looked into — thus their support for this NIH program.
Traumatic brain injury, according to the NIH, is the leading cause of death in young adults. It has garnered attention of late due to a deeper understanding of how repeated concussions can lead to long-term effects, especially when young military personnel to professional athletes often experience head injuries. Concussions remain a medical mystery as there isn’t a standard way to reliably diagnose them, gauge their severity and know how quickly someone will recover.
The NIH program will fund two large projects that will detail long-term changes that brains display years after a head injury or multiple concussions. It will also fund six smaller projects that will assess what happens to the brain immediately after a sport-related concussion. Altogether, ten neuropathologists will study the brain tissue of a plethora of donors who had varying degrees of traumatic brain injury (TBI) to establish a more reliable standard of diagnosis.
Brain scans will also be used to assess changes in brain tissue and diagnose chronic outcomes of TBI in living individuals. In addition, a registry will be developed to enroll potential donors who have a history of TBI.