ST. LOUIS, MO (KTVI) – As another NFL season draws to a close, worries linger about concussions and the toll they take on players’ brains years down the road. More than 3,000 former players have sued the league, accusing the NFL of withholding information about the risks of head injuries for decades. The league denies the allegations. Meanwhile, the NFL is spending $30 Million dollars through the National Institutes of Health to fund efforts to find some answers to this nagging problem.
Washington University is one of the funded sites. Dr. David Brody, a neurologist is heading up the Washington University group that is providing clinical care for retired NFL players with neurological problems. Dr. Brody calls it doing rehab for the brain. He says asking the player or those around him what’s interfering with his everyday life is important in assessing the situation. The rehab involves helping them think faster, be more organized and control their emotions better. They received medicines to help with sleep problems or attention deficit disorder.
Concussions typically damage the axons, the brain’s wiring system that connects one part to another. Current MRI scans aren’t sensitive to axon damage. So along with money for clinical care, Washington University is also receiving funding to develop the next generation of MRI. One that would be more sensitive to the amount and location of damage to the axons caused by concussions. It’s called Diffusion Sensor Imaging and should be available before long.
A big worry for players with repeated concussions is something called CTE or Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy. It’s a steady deterioration of the brain over decades. It’s linked to behavioral problems, depression and personality changes. It is currently untreatable. CTE showed up in the brain of former linebacker, Junior Seau who committed suicide last year. He was one of a growing number of former players who died with signs of the disease.
Dr. Brody hopes the NFL efforts will eventually develop new ways to diagnose, treat and reverse these brain injuries while the players are alive.
Howard Richards hopes so too. A former player, he’s participating in one of the NFL studies at Boston University. Howard was a first team All Big-8 and 2nd Team All-America offensive lineman at Mizzou. He was a first round draft pick of the Dallas Cowboys in 1981 and played 7 years in the NFL. He says doctors estimate he suffered 3-5 concussions a year from high school through the pros. He recalls the hard hits that left him seeing stars, feeling dizzy with headaches, numbness in his back and neck. Howard says when he played, concussions were never really considered a risk. They were just part of the game. You brushed them off and went back in. You didn’t want to let down your teammates and someone was waiting to take your place if you couldn’t go. It wasn’t just the hits in games, but all the hitting during practice.
After retiring from football, Howard worked for the CIA and is now the Executive Director of Institutional Security and Development for Harris Stowe State University and analyst for the Mizzou football radio broadcasts. He says he still has some symptoms he thinks are related to all those concussions. He has dizziness from time to time, headaches, occasional memory lapses and numbness in his left arm. Howard hopes they are not symptoms of something serious like CTE; but he is concerned. He thinks of Junior Seau, John Mackey, Mike Webster and others.. all who died with signs of the disease. That’s one of the reasons he’s participating in the study at Boston U. He wants to know if there is something wrong. He also wants to help others down the road.
Howard believes more needs to be done for player safety, especially at the high school and college level. He mentions restricting impact in practices and better helmets. He believes players on these levels have less say in equipment they use, whereas the pros have much more input. NFL players even have a union that can and does negotiate safety issues with the league.
The U-S military is also interested in these brain injury studies because they can be applied to blast-related injuries.
Meanwhile, UCLA researchers have released results of a small study in which they were able to use a low-dose radioactive compound to spot evidence of a protein associated with CTE in the brains of some living former players. More study is needed, but it’s encouraging.