by Hallee Foster '15
Three-letter acronyms abound in our society – NRA, NBA, CDC – and often name agencies that seldom interact. However, an unlikely friendship has recently formed between two three-letter permutations that seem to occupy opposite sides of the spectrum: NFL and NIH. In 2012, the NFL – yes, the National Football League – donated a whopping $30 million to the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health to fund research on traumatic brain injury – a subject that hits close to home for the NFL and its players.
Traumatic brain injury (TBI) is a serious public health problem with an ever-widening scope of severity. It is currently the number one cause of death amongst young adults  and is a particular menace to young athletes. Perhaps even more frightening than its prevalence is its nebulosity. We have no rapid, reliable diagnostic methods for concussions and know little about the long-term consequences of repetitive insult to the head other than the high risk of developing progressive brain degeneration, chronic traumatic encephalography (CTE). Brains afflicted by CTE show demonstrable physical damage, including excess protein build up and tangled cells. CTE produces symptoms analogous to those of Alzheimer’s – irritability, confusion, depression, mood swings, memory loss, and cognitive difficulties. Preliminary tests have revealed that several former high-profile athletes, including Hall of Fame running back, Tony Dorsett, may be living with CTE. Fifty-four former-NFL players have donated their brains for scientific analysis post-mortem to the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy at Boston University. Fifty-two of said brains show marked signs of brain damage from repeated concussions .
The rapid pace of contact sports demands that deciding whether to pull the star quarterback out of the game after a brutal sack be made as quickly as deciding which offensive play to run. There is no grace period for extensive medical evaluations, MRI scans, or a cup of coffee with your neurologist. Modern sideline sports medicine lacks a surefire way to identify a concussion the moment it happens. After decades of flirting with and often turning a blind eye to concussions' deleterious and long-term effects, the NFL is finally confronting brain injury - a concern that should reign superior to all other aspects of the game. The NFL desperately needs a concussion test that can gauge severity and inform thoughtful decisions without delaying the game.
With this in mind, the NIH announced last December that it plans to fund 8 sports-related concussion projects, at a pretty price tag of just over $14 million Here’s the sound bite on each of these innovative endeavors:
In addition to the NIH collaboration, the NFL has also recently struck a deal with General Electric to begin a 4-year, $50 million initiative to develop brain imaging machinery that can better predict and analyze sports concussions . These research efforts mark the beginning of a promising, much-needed intersection between basic science and American sports culture. Demystifying the symptoms and understanding the consequences of sports-related concussions offers the hope of dissolving the wall of ignorance between our nation’s athletic machismo and the impact that it has on our athletes’ bodies. Incorporating modern neuroscience into the decisions of players, parents, and coaches in every athletic realm ranging from 5 year-old municipal t-ball to Super Bowl XLIX has the potential to make sports smarter, safer, and ultimately more sustainable. One of the leading concussion research advocates and co-founder of the Sports Legacy Institute – a nonprofit organization dedicated to facing the “concussion crisis”— Chris Nowinski, puts it succinctly: “Football is a constantly evolving game, we’re asking it to evolve again.”