Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Where Football and Brain Science Collide

In 2006, 60 Minutes interviewed Joe Namath, former Jets quarterback and Pro Football Hall of Famer. In that interview, Namath’s career is charted in terms of his injuries—two knee replacements; disjointed vertebra; broken bones in his hands, feet, and face; a shoulder separation; and of course multiple concussions, to name a few.

Since his time (60's & 70's), the rules have changed, the equipment has improved, and overall, football players are more protected. In fact, Brett Favre, now QB for the Minnesota Vikings, began his pro career in 1992, and it continues now, 17 years later… a feat unheard of in Namath’s day.

But even though the sport has come a long way, new research suggests that it continues to take its toll on players health, and the region of greatest concern is the brain. A recent NFL sponsored study in which ex-football players were asked if they had ever been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s diseases, dementia, or other memory-related diseases, shows cause for concern. The number that answered yes in the 50+ age category numbered 5 times the national average; in the 30-49 age category, 19 times the national average. Couple that with reports of ex-pro-athletes suffering personality changes, slurred speech, and forgetfulness among other things, and a red flag goes up.

Enter a series of articles printed over the last few weeks; beginning with a New Yorker piece highlighting the research of Drs. Bennet Omalu and Ann McKee. In looking at the brains of ex-pro athletes, it appears that they don’t look like they should.

Alzheimer’s disease results from the buildup of two proteins, called beta-amyloid and tau. Beta-amyloid is thought to set the stage for Alzheimer’s; tau signals the progression of the disease. In these players’ brains they have an abnormal amount of tau, but no beta-amyloid, indicating a condition known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy. Basically, these players have brain injury resulting from brain trauma. And the worst part, these tau buildups have been found in high school and college athletes that never went pro - kids with brains that look like those of seniors suffering dementia!

Using sensors placed in the helmets of football players, we also now know that these players are experiencing forces upwards of 100-g when they get hit. This is the same amount of force a car accident victim experiences. Even the not so serious hits can register at 60-g. Repeated hits like this likely do a lot of damage.

But this doesn’t stop at football players. Boston University and the Sports Legacy Institute are teaming up to compare the brains of these athletes to those of military personnel. The NY Times reports that approximately 320,000 soldiers who have fought in Iraq or Afghanistan have experienced traumatic brain injury. Diagnoses of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in soldiers are also on the rise. So now the question remains, could the PTSD symptoms be a result of traumatic injury to the brain? Researchers hope to answer this.

Today on Capitol Hill, there is a congressional hearing to talk about this issue. Right now what’s needed is more research. The studies that I’ve mentioned have not looked at enough players to be able to say conclusively that these athletes are suffering from permanent brain injury due to repeated hits, but it is a wakeup call, and the implications are huge. Regardless of where the research takes us, I think it’s safe to say that Monday Night Football will never be the same.
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  1. What will I do with my weekends without football Fucc.!

  2. Luckily there are at least two more months of college football and 2.5 of professional football. Don't despair!

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