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Brain Trauma and Football Injury Study Planned By NFL, Harvard

  • Written by: Martha Garcia

The National Football League (NFL) and the National Football Players Association (NFPL) are negotiating a deal to award Harvard University $100 million dollars to study and treat players’ head injuries and other health problems that may be caused during their playing career. 

The planned deal comes amid renewed concern for the mental health of football players who sustained a traumatic brain injury (TBI) while playing. The deal would include an extensive 10-year study into brain injury and concussion-related dementia, among other issues such as chronic pain, arthritis, joint replacement, depression, diabetes, and heart problems.

Prior research has primarily focused on postmortem study of players’ brains, but the proposed study will focus on a holistic view of a player and their health concerns across their entire life, including the brain.

The project is planned to include a larger study of 1,000 current and former players across the country in varying football positions and with differing health concerns. The group will provide a baseline study for cardiac function, psychosocial testing and testing of joint abnormalities.

From the larger group, a focus group of the 100 least healthy and 100 healthiest current and retired players will be selected to continue more intensive testing. The study will exhaustively research the players’ histories over their entire football careers and will include more focused research centered on concussion and other major illnesses commonly found among football players.

Other areas of concern may include genetics, contributing to information about players who have a higher risk for head injury, injury prevention, advanced scanning techniques, new drugs and new helmets.

More than 100 Harvard researchers and multiple health institutions are slated for involvement in the exhaustive study, which will be used to help diagnose, treat and prevent future illnesses.

Public Brain Trauma Concern

Concern for brain injury among football players and other athletes involved in high-impact sports was renewed following the suicides of many high profile players. More than 80 lawsuits filed involve nearly 2,200 players who allege the NFL failed to properly inform them of the dangers involved in playing the sport.

Plaintiffs, including numerous high profile players, say the league hid information disclosing the increased risk of permanent brain injury. A recent study found a link between years of repetitive head trauma and an increased risk of serious brain damage, known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).

More recently, researchers discovered a second blow to the head following an initial head injury may cause severe side effects and may result in death. The phenomena is known as second impact syndrome (SIS) and can event result from a second blow categorized as a light bump, since the brain has not had enough time to recover.

The NFL donated $30 million last year to the National Institutes of Health for a study completely focused on brain injury. However, concern for brain injury research has grown outside of the NFL as well. The Institute of Medicine (IOM) announced earlier this month the launch of an extensive study involving sports-related concussions among young players through the age of 19.

The study will include military personnel and their children and will focus on risk factors, screening, diagnosis, treatment and long-term consequences. The research is sponsored in part by the of Defense, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the National Institutes of Health.

The main priority of the Harvard study is player health and safety, said the NFL. The NFLPA project will be funded by the player portion of league revenues and is expected to be finalized following the Super Bowl.

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