SfN Discussion Centers on Youth Football

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.]

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The Blitz is On

Earlier this month, the senior vice president of the National Football League’s health and safety policy spoke at a hearing in Washington, D.C., where he was asked if there is a link between football and chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE. Jeff Miller replied, “The answer to that is certainly, yes,” moving the ball down the field in a longtime debate among independent researchers, former athletes, and the NFL.

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Ann McKee, M.D.

Alongside Miller stood Dana Alliance member Ann McKee, M.D., whose latest study was just referenced in a story on CTE in the New York Times on Sunday, March 27. At the hearing, McKee presented findings from her ongoing research on the relationships between traumatic brain injury, neurodegenerative disease, and contact sports. As director of the Brain Bank for Boston University’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, she has been making headlines over the past several years for revealing that “deceased athletes, including at least 90 former NFL players, were found to have had [CTE].”

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From the Archives: Striking Back at Stroke

StrikingBackStroke_featWhen she was 43, journalist and former nurse Cleo Hutton had a severe stroke. Suddenly unable to speak, understand, or even walk, Hutton struggled first to survive and then to regain her physical skills and her independence. Her book Striking Back at Stroke: A Doctor-Patient Journal combines entries from her personal journal with medical and scientific commentary by Louis R. Caplan, an expert in US stroke medicine and a member of the Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives. Dana Press published the book in 2003 (11 years after her stroke), and we ran an excerpt of it in our Cerebrum journal, “The War of Rehabilitation.” Here’s a bit from Hutton’s journal:

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Is Professional Football Safe?

“New Data Shows 96% of NFL Players Test Positive for Brain Disease” declares the headline of a recent and alarming article from TIME magazine. Surely, if this is the case, why would anyone want to pursue a career in the sport? Well, it turns out, it may not be the case, said Alvaro Pascual-Leone of Harvard University in last night’s International Neuroethics Society event about safety in professional football.

“Much of the information we have today is based on woefully underpowered studies,” he explained. “If you want to make sound inferences of risk you need about 70 percent of the reachable public,“ which in this case would be 10,000 former NFL players (of the approximately 15,000 alive today). To put things into perspective, the study mentioned above only studied the brains of 91 former players.

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Tales from the Lab: Plasticity in Response to Injury–a Blessing and a Curse

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Grace Lindsay, a neuroscience graduate student from Columbia University, is guest blogging about neuroplasticity for our “Tales from the Lab” series. This is Grace’s second blog post.

Plasticity is a necessary and powerful force in the developing brain. By adulthood, however, things have mostly settled down. But every now and then, there are events that can upturn the relative stability of the adult brain, forcing a rearrangement of its otherwise consistent connections.

Stroke is one such event. The cutoff of blood to brain tissues leads to the death of neurons, disrupting the neural network in and around the affected region. In a frantic and somewhat messy attempt to salvage what remains, the brain responds by releasing a molecular cocktail to encourage the growth of new cells and of new axons on existing cells, trying to reestablish the lost connections. But this attempt to reconnect is largely random and time sensitive; it rarely is able to restore the brain to the way it was before the stroke. Scientists are studying how to best intervene to enhance the brain’s natural response to injury and improve stroke outcomes.

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   Photo courtesy of Peter W. Halligan, Cardiff University

But the brain’s natural response to trauma is not always helpful. Take, for example, the problem of “referred phantom sensation.” When a person loses a limb, the cortical area that normally processes sensory signals from that limb no longer receives its normal input. Yet a large fraction of amputees report feeling sensation in their phantom limb on a regular basis. What’s more, some patients actually feel sensation in their phantom limbs in response to being touched in another part of the body. For example, a case study from Oxford University describes how an amputee felt sensation in her amputated right arm when certain parts of the right side of her face were touched. The responses were somatotopically mapped –that is, nearby areas of the face corresponded roughly to nearby areas of the arm (see figure below). It appears that, because it’s lacking its own input, the region assigned to the now-missing limb is overtaken by inputs from another region. In most people, the area of cortex representing the head is located directly next to that representing the arm, so perhaps it is unsurprising that the arm area would be overtaken by head inputs. It’s assumed that plasticity, either in the cortex or the subcortical structures which feed into it (or both), is responsible for this phenomenon. But exactly how–either through the strengthening of existing synapses or the sprouting of new ones into the affected area–is not clear.

 

While this ability of the cortex to rearrange itself can be damaging, it can also be utilized. Prosthetic devices such as cochlear implants rely on it. Over time and use, the brain learns how to properly process inputs it gets from the implant, allowing a person to improve in important areas such as speech perception. The double-edged nature of the brain’s dramatic response to dramatic change can be fully appreciated.

– Grace Lindsay

Grace Lindsay is a first-year Ph.D. student in the Neurobiology and Behavior Program at Columbia University. She got her BS in neuroscience from the University of Pittsburgh in 2011 and then spent a year doing research at the Bernstein Center in Freiburg, Germany. She blogs about all things neuroscience at neurdiness.wordpress.com.

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