One Sunday morning in December, Robert Stern, PhD, co-director of Boston University School of Medicine’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy (CSTE), happened upon an unexpected announcement while reading an online article: “The NFL was not only acknowledging the link between [chronic traumatic encephalopathy] CTE and repetitive concussions, but was donating $1 million” to the Boston University center, recounted Dr. Stern. “That’s not something you casually learn of everyday.”
The NFL donation came as a shock to anyone who followed the contentious congressional hearings that took place two months prior in October. During the hearings, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and the now former co-chairmen of the NFL Committee on Mild Traumatic Brain Injury Ira Casson, MD, and David Viano, MD, adamantly denied the link between repetitive concussions often sustained by professional football players and dementia.
“[The hearings] made the NFL look like they were truly denying a problem and putting their heads in the sand,” said Dr. Stern. “But, they were [beginning to] truly open their eyes to the issue [and have continued to keep their eyes open.]” CTE is a degenerative brain disease that results from the build-up of the tau protein, which researchers believe may be the result of multiple concussions. Characteristics of the disease include cognitive and behavioral problems that often lead to dementia. CSTE’s research has primarily focused on the examination of deceased players’ brains and spinal cord tissues.
“Between October and December the NFL really started taking the issue seriously and received some positive feedback for doing so,” said Dr. Stern. There were some very important changes to the game of football, the resignations of Drs. Casson and Viano, and public service announcements on concussion safety aired during every NFL game. In addition, the congressional hearings made it very clear this was an important issue that wasn’t going to go away. “I truly believe Goodell and other NFL leaders understood the problem, [which] made it crystal clear something had to be done,” said Dr. Stern.
Goodell and the CSTE co-director, Robert Cantu, MD, had also been meeting privately to discuss ways to improve the health and well-being of the NFL athletes, according to Dr. Stern. As a result of the meetings, the NFL decided to support CTE research: players have been asked to participate in the research and family members have been encouraged to donate the brains of deceased players to the CSTE Brain Bank.
Dr. Stern asserts that the NFL’s financial support of CSTE’s research was never discussed during those meetings.
Although Dr. Stern and his colleagues were appreciative of the NFL’s offer, they were also hesitant to accept, wary that there would be restrictions tied to the offer. “[CSTE is] focused on doing high-quality research and this donation had the potential of looking like big-tobacco supporting research for lung cancer,” said Dr. Stern.
After four months, Boston University ascertained that the $1 million donation was restriction free, which will allow researchers to conduct their research with complete independence and integrity, said Dr. Stern. The money will be used to help jump start CSTE’s clinical research program and will also support the ongoing research on the neuropathology of brain and spinal cord tissues, according to Dr. Stern.
“The NFL’s donation is [definitely a step in the right direction and shows that they're interested in] supporting the research,” said Jeffrey S. Kutcher, MD, director of Michigan NeuroSport at the University of Michigan and chair of the AAN Sports Neurology Section. However, additional research needs to be funded and conducted aside from Boston University’s CSTE, Dr. Kutcher added. There’s very little research that has been done and CTE needs to be studied on multiple levels by multiple institutions before a definitive cause can be determined.
A point with which Dr. Stern agrees: “We need to start to develop treatments, but we can’t until we [can make an accurate] diagnosis [during life]. This is really expensive work and although the donation seems like a lot of money it’s really miniscule to support this kind of research.” Dr. Stern added, “But it definitely helps.”
For more coverage on the connection between concussions and dementia, read past articles in the collection, “NFL Concussions Linked to Dementia
,” on neurotodayonline.com.