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Tackling Concussions

Football tackle
Photo by Tommy Gillgan

Good news for football moms...and football dads...and football grandparents...and anyone who watches football...and, well, anyone who cares about human life and scientific research. (There must be a category you fit into.)

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, at first in denial about the link between player's repeated concussions and degenerative cognitive function or Alzheimer's later in life, has made a laudable 180-degree turnaround. He is now a vocal champion for the safety of his players: "There is no issue of greater importance when it comes to player safety than the effective prevention, diagnosis and treatment of concussions," Goodell told the 2011 Congress of Neurological Surgeons. "The more we can learn about the brain, the better for all. And we can be the leaders." Goodell has found religion.

Also impressive was a report on "Good Morning America" by Katie Moisse that more than 500 current and former U.S. athletes have agreed to donate their brains to research - a gift they hope will protect future athletes from a progressive dementia linked to concussions.

Stephanie Smith of CNN reported that in February, former Chicago Bears safety David Duerson, 50, shot himself in the chest, but not before leaving behind a note requesting that his brain be studied for evidence of a disease striking football players. His plaintive note read, "Please, see that my brain is given to the NFL's brain bank."

Dave Duerson had classic pathology of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). He was 50 years old. Scientists at Boston University have found evidence of CTE in the brain of an athlete as young as 18.

Former Buffalo Sabre Rick Martin died from a heart attack this year at age 59. His brain showed distinct signs of concussion-related CTE with features of Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and ALS (Lou Gehrig's disease).

Martin was one of 96 athlete brains received by the VA Brain Bank. Of 70 so far analyzed, more than 50 have shown definitive markers of CTE, including those from 14 of 15 former NFL players. The disease is unforgiving. Unlike ALS, it is not a three- to five-year progression to death; rather, it takes even longer than Alzheimer's. As it progresses, patients have rage behavior, dementia, disrupted speech and uncoordinated movement. But there have been remarkable gains in understanding this disease. The hope is that the retardation or cure will - with research and basic science - be faster in coming.

That is why 500 athletes have signed on to donate their brains to the VA Brain Bank. They feel that by donating their brains, they and future NFL players will have a true shot at safety. Picture an end to Alzheimer's, CTE, ALS, and Parkinson's. Now those are goals worth rooting for!

Photo credit: West Point Public Affairs on Flickr

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