On an early Sunday afternoon a few blocks away from the Society for Neuroscience Conference at the San Diego Convention Center, sports bars packed with football fans watched their heroes bang heads playing the most popular sport in America. Inside the center, four neuroscientists who specialize in head trauma and a former NFL player talked about the complex issues of concussion and multiple impacts to the brain in football, others sports, military service, and in random accidents.
“Here is an October 9 New York Times article about Jordan Reed, a tight end for the Washington Redskins, who sustained his sixth concussion and pondered whether if and when he should return to the field,” Harry Levin, a professor of neuroscience at Baylor University, enlarged on a screen. “Six is too many, and he ended up missing only two games.”
“Did he have come back too soon?” asked Levin. The answer, to the frustration of athletes, their families, and neuroscientists head trauma researchers is: We really don’t know.
While the roundtable discussion, “Concussion: From the Players’ Experience to the Future of Research,” offered compelling data on the scope of concussion and mild head trauma by gender, age, and circumstance, the speakers emphasized that in light of heightened awareness and the challenges facing researchers about quantifying the dangers, making public policy decisions is purely speculative and premature. [See full video of the discussion, below.]
A hot button topic in the area of brain trauma is chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the degenerative brain disease discovered in the early 2000s by Bennet Omalu, who worked on the case of Mike Webster, a former center for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Robert Stern of the Boston College of Medicine, a pioneer in CTE research, said that since researchers have only been able to study the brains of diseased football players, many questions remain on the extent of the disease. He talked about the promise of a $16 million grant from the National Institutes of Health that will hopefully allow researchers to detect, diagnose, and treat CTE during life. Blood-based biomarkers may be able to eventually detect CTE vulnerability and the degree that head trauma differs in individuals, he speculated. “The idea is to develop anti-tau compounds and strategies before dementia sets in,” he said.
But the issue that seemed to resonate most were the effects that participation in youth football has on the developing brain. Nick Drake, a former quarterback at the University of Alabama-Birmingham and a journeyman NFL player, talked emotionally about the devastating effects on his day-to-day function because of 10 concussions and hits to his head during 22 years of football, and how medication and therapy has helped.
Much of his talk was a plea to coaches and others who run youth football programs. “Kids should not be allowed to “wear pads” (or participate in hitting drills), until they pass the age of 14,” he said. “They are not equipped to decide whether they should be allowed to participate—that’s why they don’t vote or drink. While we may not know the full extent of the damage they may incur to their futures, we simply cannot run the risk of thinking it’s okay to play.” While protocols are now in place to protect players from returning too soon to the field once head injury is suspected, Drake pointed out that “[t]here is no federal organization, or even state organization, that regulates youth football” in terms of how much contact is permitted, and that the interpretation of TBI-related legislation varies from state to state. “It’s decided league- by-league and coach-by-coach, and this is simply unacceptable,” he said.
Until science can tell us more, common sense needs to prevail, was the consensus from the panel. During Stern’s presentation and later during the Q&A, a video clip of two pre-pubescent football players smashing their heads into one another during a practice was shown several times. Each time the audience cringed. That alone revealed that head trauma in youth football needs closer scrutiny.