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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Inaccurate Statistics on Football Safety for Kids

With all the controversy surrounding the link between traumatic brain injury and professional football, the National Football League (NFL) has been adopting certain initiatives over the last couple of years in an attempt to reassure the country that their national pastime is becoming safer for kids and athletes. Together with USA Football—youth football’s governing body—the league endorsed a new educational program called “Heads Up Football” back in 2015. The program involves a series of in-person and online courses for coaches to learn new safety procedures and proper tackling drills to reduce the risk of head injury. The NFL and USA Football said that the program reduced the number of concussions by an estimated 30 percent and injuries by 76 percent.

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Photo credit: Shutterstock

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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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Tackling the Issue of CTE in Sports

football CTEWith another football season on the horizon, coupled with last week’s induction of legendary linebacker Junior Seau into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, the controversial topic of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) is back on the front burner. CTE is a type of degenerative brain disease that has become a hot button issue in the world of contact sports.

Following Seau’s retirement in 2010 after an extraordinary 20-year career, his family began to notice bouts of insomnia, depression, extreme mood swings, and emotional withdrawal. “It was hard,” his daughter, Sydney, told Yahoo Sports. “[W]e were all reaching for someone that wasn’t exactly reaching back, even though…we knew that he wanted to.”

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Spreading the Word about CTE

Chris Nowinski head shot6215 Chris Nowinski was in New York City late last week to join 1,200 former football players gathering for the Ivy Football Association (IFA) dinner at the Marriott Marquis. Earlier in the day, he and a group met for an informal breakfast at the Harvard Club in midtown, where I met Chris and got a sense of his back-breaking schedule. At both events, there was considerable buzz about chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a long-term degenerative and incurable brain disease caused by repeated hits to the head—mild or otherwise.

Cerebrum, the Dana Foundation’s online neuroscience journal, had invited Chris to write about CTE. His recently posted story, “Hit Parade: The Future of the Sports Concussion Crisis,” couldn’t have been timelier. In the two weeks leading up to our publication date, a new study had been released, several Super Bowl participants had talked about the implications of CTE in their own lives, and President Obama had expressed his own concern in a magazine interview. As senior editor of Cerebrum, I told Chris how much I appreciated his keeping us current and updating our story.

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