New study brings some optimism to NFL head-injury crisis

Researchers found a high incidence of cognitive disability, but not enough to be labeled a majority, bringing hope to thousands of former NFL players

For the first time since doctors began researching the effect of NFL head injuries, the tenor may not be all doom and gloom.

According to researchers at the University of Texas at Dallas, players have reasons to believe that multiple head injuries do not automatically bring about cognitive impairments and mental illnesses, and that if disabilities do develop, some can be effectively treated with early detection.

“Many former NFL players think that because they played football or had concussions, they are certain to face severe neurological consequences, but that is not always the case,” said Dr. John Hart, who led the study, in a press release. He added that many study participants with extensive concussion histories are healthy and cognitively normal today.

Hart’s findings did, however, agree with previous studies that discovered a preponderance of cognitive difficulties among the community of retired football players. In his examination, Hart, medical science director at the Center for BrainHealth and the director of the BrainHealth Institute for Athletes, observed a heightened number of cognitive deficits and depression among retired players, though he was optimistic about not discovering evidence of cognitive impairment in the majority of ex-players surveyed.

Dr. Hart’s study — published this week in the JAMA Neurology Journal — examined the mental functions, brain images and emotional states of 34 retired NFL players between the ages of 41 and 79, and compared the findings with data from men who did not play professional football. All but two of the ex-players had experienced concussions during their careers.

Of the football players, 20 showed no signs of impairment. A quarter of the participants were found to suffer from “mild cognitive impairment,” which researchers describe as difficulties with thinking and memory. This rate, though, is only slightly higher than the general population’s.

Brain imaging on the players revealed that former athletes had more damage to their white brain matter, which can be stretched when the head suffers trauma.

Where there is white matter damage, researchers found, there is an over-compensation in blood flow. This imbalance leads to a high incidence of word-finding difficulties, doctors said.

Medical officials were quick to point out that there’s a silver lining to detecting brain injuries: the positive effects of early discovery.

These symptoms aren’t final, doctors say. They can be reversed, especially if they’re uncovered when the patient is in his 50s and not his 70s.

“The brain is regenerative for life, and we can restore faculties that just a few years ago were thought to be lost forever,” said former Dallas Cowboys fullback Daryl Johnston, who participated in the study and recruited players for it. The former Cowboys star’s sentiments were echoed by the medical community.

Kevin Guskiewicz, founding director of the Center for the Study of Retired Athletes at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, told US News and World Report that early detection is they key factor in enabling recovery.

“Seeing changes early, at age 45 or 50, might allow us to intervene through cognitive rehabilitation or some sort of medication,” he said. “Often when these things are diagnosed, it is too late."

Hart does warn that age is a factor in determining a player’s level of mental impairment. Athletes with no impairments were 55 and 60 years old on average, while challenged players were 67 years old, according to the study.

Hart told The Dallas Morning News that Johnston was instrumental in producing the study’s findings. He said that signing players up for the research can be one of the most challenging aspects of it.

“Guys are scared to come in,” Hart told the News. “The tenor has been: They might find they have something. There’s not a whole lot of understanding. They think: ‘Why go be seen if I know this is coming no matter what? I have no reason to hear a bunch of bad news?’ “

The findings from the UT-D study come at a grim time for former NFL players concerned about the effects of brain injuries from their playing days. The league is currently being sued by several thousand former players who say the NFL purposely concealed a link between head hits and brain damage. To brighten its image, the league donated $30 million last September to the National Institute of Health to be used to study brain injuries.

Before Hart’s study, there were few reasons to be hopeful when it comes to brain injuries and the NFL. The findings and anecdotal evidence had been disastrous. The day before NFL commissioner Roger Goodell donated the funds to the NIH, the journal Neurology published its conclusion that NFL players are three to four times more likely to suffer brain diseases than the rest of the population.

More dangerous than reported concussions, players and experts warn, are undocumented head traumas, the type players have been conditioned to play through, and the injuries some coaches, historically, have expected football players to push aside for the betterment of the team.

Former San Diego Chargers star linebacker Junior Seau never once reported a concussion during his career. The football legend took his own life last year, choosing to shoot himself in the chest, like former Chicago Bear Dave Duerson had done before him, to save his brain for medical studies. Duerson was found to suffer from CTE, chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a post-concussive syndrome. Gary Plummer, a Seau teammate in San Diego, told the San Francisco Chronicle that the future Hall of Famer could have incurred 1,500 concussions during his career.

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