NFL Concussion Research & Brain Injury Updates
Most of the information in this week’s blog comes from a very recent series of articles in the NY Times.
It’s been a busy few weeks for discussing concussions in the NFL. Jeff Miller, the NFL’s senior VP for health and safety policy, was recently asked to comment on whether there is a direct link between concussions and degenerative brain disease. This took place during a round table discussion at the House of Representatives. Miller said, very simply, “The answer to that is certainly, yes.” This was the first time the NFL has formally acknowledged that link, and it was widely reported in the media. Two days later NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said that a possible connection between chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) and football is “consistent with our position over the years.” Goodell, in is own ambiguous way, seemed to be supporting Jeff Miller’s very clear and unambiguous statement. (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy—the neurodegenerative disease most associated with multiple concussions in football, is particularly associated with dementia, depression and cognitive loss.) So far so good. Progress of a sort seemed to be taking place. Then a week later Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said he’s not convinced that there is a connection. Pushed on whether he believes there’s a link between CTE and football, Jones said, “No, that’s absurd. There’s no data…. You have to back it up by studies.”
Jones either did not know of or had forgotten some very well publicized data. Dr. Ann McKee, a Boston University neuropathologist, has diagnosed over 176 CTE cases during the past five years, including 90 out of 94 former NFL players whose brains were examined; 45 out of 55 college players; and six out of 26 high school players. Rather than there not being a link, It’s becoming more apparent that chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) is far more common than anyone realized. This is reinforced by a Mayo Clinic study last fall that found CTE in the brains of 21 of 66 men who played contact sports — mostly football — but no traces of the disease in 198 others who did not play contact sports. This is more newsworthy than the NFL acknowledging a causal link that everyone already believed existed. The Mayo results show that CTE is not limited to boxers and professional football players. The people in that study primarily played high school and college football, but also boxing, rugby, wrestling and soccer. They found signs of CTE in the brains of 21 people who played contact sports — almost one in three. They found no signs of CTE in the brains of the 198 people who had not played contact sports.
This brings up at least two interesting points. First, some of those with CTE did not have symptoms. We do not yet understand why that might be the case. Second, CTE is following the standard course for a newly discovered disease. First the most serious cases are evident—boxers and football players—and the thinking is that this newly discovered disease is both rare (restricted to a narrow population) and very serious. As research looks at the broader population, it gradually becomes clear that the disease is both much more widespread than previously thought and not as devastating. CTE occurs along a spectrum like so many other diseases. Autism was once thought relatively rare and a terrible disease. Now we know autism is much more widespread and on a spectrum from very mild to more serious.
Helmet Research, Helmetless Tackling & Concussion
Other concussion and helmet related research has recently come to light. Helmets are really designed primarily to prevent skull fractures. Although they were not designed to prevent concussions, wearing a helmet gives a feeling of protection. Many athletes play with greater abandon than they otherwise would if they realized the limits of the helmet’s protection. Several groups have started experimenting with having one or two days a week of helmetless tackling.
Two years ago researchers approached the coaches for the University of New Hampshire football team and asked if they would consider implementing a helmetless tackling program designed by the scientists. And so, during the 2014 preseason, half of the U.N.H. varsity football team began practicing twice a week without helmets, following a carefully prescribed series of drills. The other half of the team completed standard practices, with helmets.
During the regular season, the players assigned to the helmetless group continued to practice once per week without helmets. Throughout this time, all team members wore helmets equipped with sensors that tracked the number and force of impacts to their heads.
Early in the season, head impacts were comparable in both groups. But as the season progressed, the players who occasionally practiced without helmets began to experience considerably fewer blows to their heads. By the end of the season, they were hitting their heads about 30 percent less often in any given game or practice than the players who never took their helmets off during drills.
The data strongly suggest that the athletes in the intervention group had learned how to tackle and play without involving their heads as much. Probably as important from a training standpoint, the coaches felt that the players in the helmetless group were now tackling more effectively than the players who had not participated in helmetless drills.
All in all, I think the updates this week are a win/win all the way around.