New imaging technique spots evidence of potential brain damage in living football players

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The concussion crisis may have just opened a new door.

Researchers for the first time have detected changes in the brains of football players who are still alive.  Specifically, new brain imaging techniques have detected abnormal tau proteins in five retired NFL players.

Though the proteins don’t necessarily prove the existence of or predict the development of Chronic Traumatic Encephelopathy, it’s the first time that abnormal tau proteins that can lead to CTE have been detected via a method other than an autopsy.

The findings were published today by the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, the official journal of the American Association for Geriatric Psychiatry.  And the study indicates that the development could “facilitate early recognition and intervention of trauma-related neurodegeneration through premorbid detection,” calling the technique a “critical first step to developing interventions to prevent symptoms onset and progression.”  (It’s a good thing they use plain English in these studies.)
The study bears the names of 11 authors:  Gary W. Small, M.D.; Vladimir Kepe, Ph. D.; Prabha Siddarth, Ph.D.; Linda M. Ercoli, Ph. D.; David A. Merrill, M.D., Ph. D.; Natacha Donoghue, B.A.; Susan Y. Bookheimer, Ph.D.; Jacqueline Martinez, M.S.; Bennet Omalu, M.D.; Julian Bailes, M.D.; and Jorge R. Barrio, Ph.D.
The broader question is whether any player who is determined to have abnormal tau proteins will stop playing football.  We’ve got a feeling that few will.

52 responses to “New imaging technique spots evidence of potential brain damage in living football players

  1. Spot the damage, sign a waiver, keep playing.

    They are warriors, right? Right up until they kill someone. Then they are conscienceless monsters.

  2. If you were an NFL player, or even an NHL player…would you want to know if you have brain trauma, so that you can take whatever precautions for your family i.e. financial planning? Or would you live in hope and denial?

  3. Here, run this brain imaging through your skull and we’ll tell if you have brain damage. What we won’t tell you is that running this across your brain will cause tumors/cancer.

  4. Say goodbye to the NFL. It’s already hard to watch due to all of the flags for “playing defense.” How many players are going to be sidelined or undrafted due to all of these tests. On the bright side, the NFL can shift liability from themselves to the brain scan manufacturers after these players get brain cancer from the hundreds of scans that they will be forced to endure i.e. before they are drafted, before they sign a contract, after every game where they get hit to the head, etc.

  5. Gather round, while we witness the demise of our beloved, barbaric sport. Really, at one point of time, we need to have an open and honest discussion: how much is this sport worth to us collectively, taking into account the health and minds of our players (and, despite our different teams, they are OUR players).

  6. Makes you wonder if contact football’s days are eventually going to be limited by the weight of lawsuits as technology improves.

    I seriously hope not. But what’s happening to these guys is tragic too.

  7. Players are smart enough to know they are doing damage to their brains, with the knowledge out there already. Why is this a surprise? Players still agreed they would do it again. Football is a contact sport, unless they make it touch (they’re moving in this direction with how soft they call the game nowadays)..

  8. If you dont know that getting hit/hitting others at extreme speeds/extreme forces causes damage to your body, including to your brain, you’re probably not smart enough for brain damage to have an effect in the first place.

    They have a decision to make. Get paid millions and take/dish the punishment, or dont play and get a job like the rest of the people in the US that can actually find a job.

  9. What happens with players that are forced to retire because an injury? Do they have to replay signing bonuses, get paid on what is guaranteed for injury? So how does this play into this? Would a build up in tau cause someone to retired?

  10. I played football from 6th grade all the way through my junior year in college, then played a couple more seasons in a mens’ league after that. I know a few guys that played in the league and a couple that still do. I an tell you, from a player’s perspective, that I would want to know without a doubt if my brain had a chance of being permanently injured. My knee can get scoped, my shoulder can get rehab. My brain isn’t going to get better. Honestly, as someone who played for that many years and has spent the years since coaching football, I wonder if I would ever let my boys play football.

  11. What exactly are you trying to get from this? Serious question, what are you trying to do, educate the people who watch football that, gasp, it’s a dangerous sport that can cause serious trauma?

    Wow, I’m saddened to think I did not know this beforehand.

    All you are doing is giving the folks who want a gentler side to this game an advocation to believe that way.

    The destruction of pro football has commenced. Simple solution to this people, if you dont like the inherent violence that comes with this game, stay away from it. But please, leave it alone for those of us who enjoy it.

  12. This is huge. If this can be found to be evidence that leads to CTE, they can begin research (most likely via stem cells) that could combat and possibly eliminate this down the road. Yes, I’m one of those rare science nerds who once played and still loves football.

  13. a) re: players already know they are doing damage to their brains. There is a big difference in deterrence between knowing that smoking is dangerous, and the doctor showing you the suspicious spot on your lung x-ray.

    b) this might end up a tremendous insurance headache [pun intended] for the NFL and players. Who is going to cover a player with demonstrable damage? Sort of like a person with pancreatic cancer applying for life insurance.

    c) re: the carcinogenic potential of the scans. It appears that these are MRIs or more likely PET scans [haven’t seen the original article yet], not CAT scans, so – no x-rays, and no known carcinogenic potential.

  14. “…the (existence of the) proteins don’t necessarily prove the existence of or predict the development of Chronic Traumatic Encephelopathy”.

    I’m with you in spirit, Florio – believe me, really I am.

    But you of all people should know that, until the causal relationship between the protein and the disease is demonstrated, the lawyers will crush any potential litigation based on these scans like an egg.

    Here’s hoping that science can do that…

  15. Here’s how this will work. The NFL will want annual testing of its players, so they can cover their butts from class-action lawsuits, but the NFLPA will allege that the NFL only wants testing because they want to skimp on salaries, and so nothing will happen…

    Cool technology though!

  16. kingdm8 says:
    Jan 22, 2013 2:47 PM
    I played football from 6th grade all the way through my junior year in college, then played a couple more seasons in a mens’ league after that. I know a few guys that played in the league and a couple that still do. I an tell you, from a player’s perspective, that I would want to know without a doubt if my brain had a chance of being permanently injured. My knee can get scoped, my shoulder can get rehab. My brain isn’t going to get better. Honestly, as someone who played for that many years and has spent the years since coaching football, I wonder if I would ever let my boys play footbal

    ————————————————–

    Then don’t. That’s great, but please leave it alone for the rest of us who dont have the same concerns as you.

  17. Given that every person with Alzheimers has abnormal tau proteins, I’d like to know more about how they did the study. An NFL retiree who volunteers to be imaged is likely to be showing signs- were they self-selected? Was there a control group? How many exhibited tau anomalies, out of how many examined? What was the rate compared to those who were subject to head knocking?

    This could be a big deal, it could be fluff with a insignificant sample size or relatively normal rates of occurrence. We don’t have enough information to know at the moment- but we should keep doing the research.

    I always remember back to the Harvard risk analysis of second hand smoke, where they determined that those who lived with a smoker were more likely to have lung diseases- except that they didn’t control for whether the person living with the smoker was also a smoker (a re-work of the data caused the “significant” finding to disappear).

    It’s unlikely that repeated head trauma will not have long term effects (if you need an example, check out Muhammad Ali). But we need to do the studies right. Is impact worse at age 10, 20, or 26? Big blow versus many small blows. Etc.

  18. @ patskrieg.com

    Hammer? Meet Nail Head.

    What a classless comment by a clueless whiny coach.
    You witness a player exhibit all the signs of a concussion and still, hours later, don’t have enough of tact to mitigate your ridiculous stance on it.

  19. At least now there appears to be something tangible that living players can look at to see just how they’re affected. This might cause players to think twice about playing. On the other hand, if people like Brian Urlacher repeatedly lie about getting concussed, it seems the culture and the desire to play and win will override health.

  20. Why waste money on state of the art brain imaging equipment, when all you really need to do is read a few NFL player tweets to understand the severity of brain damage in the NFL.

  21. People still say that professional athletes are overpaid, but the football players are literally trading years of their lives away for their paychecks. When you put it in that perspective, they don’t seem as overpaid anymore. Maybe slightly.

  22. Im all for players safety but I think by 2018 the nfl will be a flag football leauge…i hope not but they wanna soften the game so dat may be the last resort

  23. OK, we got Racing Cars drivers going 200 MPH with helmets, We got 2 football players going 25 MPH hitting each other =50 mph. Why isn’t their helmet as well made as the racing car driver ? Does Riddell have the Commiss on the company payroll ? And the NLFPA director too ? If you can keep driving race cars after big time crashes, why can\t you have a helmet that protects NFL players ? I can’t wati till they do this study on pro ruby players , they wear a little leather cover or no helmet. Of course, most NHL players have no brain to look at in the first place

  24. @ghjjf the brain is remarkably resilient. It’s not the impacts alone. It’s the repetition. Hit after hit after hit. Boxers may get hit several times in a night. But they’re really only taking hard shots once or twice a year. The brain has plenty of time to heal. Football is an almost daily 5-6 month grind with continual incidents of head trauma. I’ll never believe the game cannot be played safely, but the potential for chronic head injury is much higher in football than other sports.

  25. I know this is not going to be a popular opinion, but all these CTE studies are flawed. Until someone does a controlled study of the same sample, minus the football career, we cannot accurately know how much different the effects of football are from the effects of the average male of the same basic demographic.

  26. Honestly, I don’t know how much these findings will change the game as it is now because the players now do not care. They do not see the long term, they see the short term.

    What I mean is, most of the players would rather live lavishly and deal with the effects later than give up football and work a 9-5 job. It’s not going to be until they hit their 50’s and can’t string together complete sentences that they’re going to think “Maybe I should have worried about this more 30 years ago.”

    I know the players love the game, but money is a driving factor in this.

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