Entries in Brain Injuries (7)


NFL & Army Team Up to Combat Traumatic Brain Injuries

iStockphoto/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) -- On Capitol Hill today, U.S. Army’s Vice Chief of Staff General Lloyd Austin along with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell met with members of Congress to discuss a joint initiative by the Army and NFL to increase awareness and education about head injuries.

The effort aimed at Army soldiers and the NFL and football world,  carries a message that  together they can better address traumatic brain injuries that are sustained both on the battlefield of war and on the football field.

At a press conference, General Austin pledged that the Army is “not going to stop” until there is progress made, and that the Army is “committed to making that progress.” Austin also said that much has been learned about traumatic brain injuries in the last ten years than in the previous 50 years.

Goodell pointed to some of the work that has been done between the Army and NFL, like sharing data and research on traumatic brain injuries, and sharing equipment and censors that mutually benefit soldiers and football players.

Goodell said that player safety is a number one priority for the NFL and that working with the Army can “make our troops safer, sports safer, and society safer.”

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio


Brain Injuries Raise New Concerns for Young Football Players

Thomas Northcut/Thinkstock(NEW YORK) -- For almost a decade, Jacob Bell was living his dream: making millions playing professional football, starting 100 games for the Tennessee Titans and the St. Louis Rams.

But every season, he took thousands of hits to the head, and he worried about the toll it might be taking on his brain health.  Then came a moment of truth: the suicide of longtime NFL player Junior Seau.

"Seau's death rocked everybody.  It rocked me a lot," Bell said.  "The fact that there is a chance it was football-related and the fact that I was a football player, it hit home with me."

And so he quit the NFL, walking away from a free-agent contract with the Cincinnati Bengals earlier this month.

Bell said his plan now is to act as an advocate for players, alerting them to the dangers of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE.  First discovered about a decade ago in the brains of former football players, it's a degenerative disease linked to symptoms like dementia, erratic behavior, and suicide.  The small cadre of doctors who study CTE have diagnosed it in dozens of now-dead NFL players.

The NFL released a statement in February, saying that the league "has long made player safety a priority and continues to take steps to protect players and advance the science and medical understanding of the management and treatment of concussions."  In 2010, the league donated a $1 million grant, no strings attached, to Boston University School of Medicine's Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy (CSTE), which researches brain disease in retired football players.

But there is increasing evidence that the way the game is played is leaving a trail of invisible injuries, even among amateur athletes who have never sustained the kind of knock-out concussions often seen on the NFL gridiron.

According to research published in this month's issue of Neurology, a football player could sustain 8,000 hits over the course of a four-year high school and a four-year college career combined.

Owen Thomas is one of the youngest players ever diagnosed with CTE.  It was discovered in his brain after he committed suicide during his senior year at the University of Pennsylvania, where he was the captain of the football team.  He was 21.

Doctors are now on the leading edge of discovering how young players like Thomas -- with no documented history of concussions -- might have damaged their brains.

Researchers call these hits "subconcussive blows" -- moments at which the brain hits the inside of the skull, but not hard enough to sustain what a doctor would diagnose as concussion.

The question now is whether an accumulation of these lesser blows over time could cause brain damage powerful enough to lead to CTE, which has thus far mostly been documented in professional players with a history of concussions.

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio


Junior Seau: Safety Debate Continues as Family Delays Brain Donation

Ronald C. Modra/Sports Imagery/Getty Images(SAN DIEGO) -- The family of Junior Seau, the NFL football star who died last week, is now reconsidering donating his brain to science, backing off their decision last week to let his brain be examined for signs of traumatic injury.

"The Seau family is currently revisiting several important family decisions and placing them on hold in order to confer with their elders," said Pastor Shawn Mitchell, the longtime San Diego Chargers' chaplain, in a statement. The Seaus are of Samoan descent, and elders are the most respected and highly regarded in a Samoan family. They are often consulted when making family decisions. It is unclear when the family now plans to make its final decision regarding the brain donation.

Seau, 43, who played for the Chargers as well as the Miami Dolphins and New England Patriots, was found dead last Wednesday at his home in Oceanside, Calif., apparently from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Medical examiners ruled his death a suicide.

On Thursday evening, the family said they hoped that the brain donation would help others "down the road."

Seau's death has sent shockwaves through the sports and science worlds, but experts have cautioned that it is too early to determine whether Seau's suicide was linked to potential concussions he likely experienced during his 20-year NFL career.

Jacopo Annese, director of the University of California at San Diego's Brain Observatory, said there has not been a definitive link shown between blows to the head and such disorders as depression, dementia and Alzheimer's, but he did say there is strong scientific and anecdotal evidence.

While research methodology has not changed dramatically, the questions have evolved, offering clues into the potential lifetime adverse effects of hits and concussions.

"Like searching for the link between traumatic injury and more subtle and insidious effects like depression, suicide, and dementia," said Annese. "This has been particularly crucial in the world of sports where unprecedented body mass and acceleration create the scenario for severe trauma if there is a collision."

The death of Seau, a 12-time Pro Bowl player, came only one day before more than 100 former NFL players filed a federal lawsuit in Atlanta, claiming the league did not properly protect them against concussions and did not provide proper medical care after they finished their careers.

Seau's death bears a resemblance to that of other athletes in hard-hitting sports, including Chicago Bears football player Dave Duerson. Duerson shot himself in the chest in February of last year. Duerson's family filed a wrongful death suit against the NFL, saying the league did not protect against concussions. Several former NFL players have committed suicide in recent years, and many experts believe the deaths could be related to repeated blows to the head. In addition to Duerson, ex-Pittsburgh Steelers offensive lineman Terry Long and Philadelphia Eagles defensive back Andre Waters took their own lives. Chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, a degenerative and progressive disease found in people who have experienced multiple blows to the head, has shown up in the brains of several former athletes who committed suicide, including Duerson.

CTE has similar brain features to those of Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and Lou Gehrig's disease.

As of October, more than 500 current and former professional athletes agreed to donate their brains to the VA Brain Bank, which works in affiliation with the Boston University's Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy. Annese said the Brain Observatory at UCSD has been in contact with several athletes who are considering participating in the brain donation program.

"Like Mr. Seau, they feel that they personally hold many of the answers needed to know how to make their sport safer for future generations," said Annese. "The examination of the brain is only the final and definitive chapter of a long narrative that we create working with our participants."

The average life expectancy of a retired football player is 58, according to the NFL Players Association. That is far less than the average American man's life expectancy of 75 years, according to government data from 2006. Repeated blows to the head may disturb neurotransmitters that affect mood, and may also damage parts of the brain that have to do with impulse control and the ability to weigh the long-term consequences of decisions.

But until more research has been done, experts caution against definitively linking the hits Seau took on the field and his suicide.

In 2009, the NFL instituted new rules that require clearance from independent neurologists to allow players who suffered concussions to return to the field. The league also imposed stricter guidelines to reduce the number of helmet-to-helmet hits.

"What happened to Junior Seau is terribly sad," said Annese. "The least us scientists can do is to match his dedication to his sport and his community with our own dedication to research, finding the reasons for such tragedy, so that it does not have to happen again."

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio


Junior Seau's Family Donates His Brain to Science

Ronald C. Modra/Sports Imagery/Getty Images(SAN DIEGO) -- Junior Seau's family plans to donate his brain to science, San Diego Chargers chaplain Shawn Mitchell announced Thursday evening.

While Seau's family has said it is not looking to discover anything new about their son and what led to his death, said Mitchell, it hopes that others can benefit through anything that can be learned through the study of his brain.

Jacopo Annese, director of the University of California at San Diego's Brain Observatory, said that while there is no definitive link between blows to the head and such severe health problems as depression, dementia and Alzheimer's disease, he did say there was strong scientific and anecdotal evidence for such a connection.

"However ghoulish it may appear to the majority of the public, the work that is conducted postmortem is essential to validate this hypothesis, because the important clues are at the cellular-level, and we can't see these with MRI, but we can with our microscopes," Annese told ABC News.

While research methodology has not changed dramatically, the questions have evolved, offering clues into the potential lifetime adverse effects of hits and blows to the head.

"Searching for the link between traumatic injury and more subtle and insidious effects like depression, suicide and dementia," said Annese, "has been particularly crucial in the world of sports, where unprecedented body mass and acceleration create the scenario for severe trauma if there is a collision."

On Thursday, the San Diego County Coroner ruled former longtime NFL linebacker Junior Seau's death a suicide.

Officials conducted a forensic autopsy, which includes "a full examination of a decedent's body and organs and collection of specimens for laboratory studies."

Seau, 43, was found dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest Wednesday morning at his Oceanside, Calif. home.

The 12-time former Pro Bowl player's death came one day before more than 100 former NFL players filed a federal lawsuit in Atlanta, claiming the league did not properly protect them against concussions and did not properly provide medical care after they finished their careers.

On Thursday morning, rumors swirled as to whether Seau shot himself in the chest so that his brain could be studied. He didn't leave a note, but Sports Illustrated reported Thursday that Boston University's Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy requested to study Seau's brain. The sports mag later clarified the statement by saying the center attempts to examine the brains of all athletes who die after making a career playing hard-hitting sports. It is not known where Seau's brain will be sent for study.

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio


Head Injuries Common in Skiing Accidents

JEAN-PIERRE CLATOT/AFP/Getty Images(SALT LAKE CITY) -- The death of freestyle skier Sarah Burke has forced the safety of extreme sports into the spotlight.

Burke, 29, died Thursday, nine days after crashing on a half-pipe course in Utah. The Winter X Games champion and 2005 half-pipe world gold medalist suffered "severe irreversible damage to her brain due to lack of oxygen and blood after cardiac arrest," according to a statement from her publicist.

Competitive skiers and snowboarders are no strangers to injuries ranging from serious to fatal. In 2001, American gold-medal-winning skier Bill Johnson experienced a near-fatal crash that put him in a coma during an attempt to qualify for the 2002 Winter Games. More recently, at the 2006 Turin Olympics, skier Lindsey Vonn crashed during a training run. The accident ended her metal hopes but she was able to walk away with only a hip injury.

Kevin Pearce said snowboarding gave him the ride of a lifetime until an accident on a Utah half- pipe in 2009 left him with a traumatic brain injury (TBI). After battling through years of rehabilitation, Pearce regained his ability to talk, walk, and eat. In December, he hit the slopes for the first time since the accident.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that nearly 1.7 million Americans experience a TBI every year. Experts say sports-related injuries are the second leading cause, and the extreme nature of skiing and snowboarding makes these sports particularly hazardous.

"For any sport that involves inverting yourself or increases the chance you might lose your balance, there's always a risk of head injuries," said Dr. Alan Hoffer, a neurological surgeon at University Hospitals Case Medical Center in Cleveland, Ohio. "That's probably more true for a sport like hers, but we certainly see head injuries -- even severe head injuries -- in what might be considered safer sports like football and hockey. Flipping in the air increases your risk but in other sports you can get knocked down."

"It's certainly a real tragedy when things like this happen."

In Burke's case, Hoffer said, it is difficult to tell exactly how her injury led to her death. Initial reports suggest that Burke ruptured a vertebral artery, a blood vessel that supplies the brain, but Hoffer said the additional head trauma may have been the culprit.

While Burke was wearing a helmet at the time of her accident, Hoffer said that even this type of head protection cannot prevent all injuries to the brain.

"The goal of helmets and any protective equipment in general is to buffer the effects of an impact," he said. "Certainly, as we see in other sports such as football, they're not able to prevent all injuries."

Hoffer said that if there is anything that casual skiiers can learn from this tragedy, it is to approach the slopes with caution -- and to know how to react quickly to a situation in which a friend or loved one may have sustained a TBI.

"Even casual skiers do have some risk," he said. "You can never tell when you're going to catch an edge and go flying head over heel. People run into lift poles or jumps and come down badly. Know your limitations. Don't go on a run that's too difficult. And make sure you're somewhere that if you do need help, you can get it."

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio


Snowboarder Returns to Slopes After Lifethreatening Brain Injury

iStockphoto/Thinkstock(Breckenridge, Colo.) -- Tuesday was no ordinary day down the mountain for champion snowboarder Kevin Pearce.

The 24-year-old twisted and turned on his board down a Breckenridge, Colo., slope for the first time since a terrible accident on a Utah halfpipe nearly two years ago left him with a traumatic brain injury and took away his Olympic dreams.

He fell into a coma after slamming his head while practicing a complex stunt, and it seemed doubtful as to whether he would ever return to the sport he mastered, since doctors weren't even sure he would ever walk again.

But he battled through two years of intensive rehabilitation he regained his ability to not only talk, walk and eat but to get back on the slopes.

Pearce never gave up on his dream to one day be back on his board, and his determination is one of the main reasons doctors said he was able to make what they say is a remarkable recovery.

"It's a huge testament to this young man's amazing courage and determination," said Dr. Ross Bullock, a professor of neurology at the University of Miami's Miller School of Medicine.

"It's even more amazing that he's able to return to snowboarding, since it requires so much balance and coordination."

Another factor in his favor is his youth, Bullock said.

Older people, he explained, are more prone to different patterns of injury, such as bleeding inside the brain. In addition, older people tend to have a lot fewer brain cells, since people lose five percent of brain mass every decade after age 40.

Being an athlete helped, too, Bullock said. Exercise and physical activity, he explained, precondition the brain, which can be protective.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that nearly 1.7 million Americans experience a TBI every year. The agency recently issued a report that found the number of kids who went to emergency rooms with concussions caused by sports and recreation rose 60 percent over the past decade.

The Brain Injury & Resources Guide website, created by the University of Missouri and the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services, said sports-related injuries are the second leading cause of traumatic brain injuries.

One of the biggest dangers athletes face when returning to sports after a TBI is second impact syndrome, or SIS.

"When there is a second impact, there's a synergistic effect of the two together," said Bullock. "When you have a severe TBI, you lose a lot of brain cells and if you add another injury on top of that, the chances of getting back are reduced markedly."

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio


Better Equipment Won’t Prevent Sports Concussions, Experts and Athletes Say

iStockphoto/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) -- Sports are an important part of youth culture, but the risks of concussions need to be addressed, former athletes, neurologists and a representative from the Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment (NOCSAE) told members of the Senate Commerce Committee on Capitol Hill Wednesday.

“I don’t see this problem going away with equipment,” said Dr. Ann McKee, a professor of neurology and pathology at Boston University. “I think equipment is going to improve this issue, but it’s not going to solve this issue. We really have to address the way sports are played.”

Both former college quarterback Steven Threet and Alexis Ball, a former soccer star, testified that they felt pressured to return to games after sustaining concussions more quickly than they should have.

“I don’t think brain injury is viewed as a serious issue throughout athletics,” Threet told the panel. “It wasn’t, for me, until I had a concussion that changed what I was able to do in school and on a daily basis.”

Ball, who suffered 10 concussions in eight years, said she knew the answers to test questions doctors asked and lied in order to play.  

“People have only one brain for life,” she said. “I will never regain the visual memory I once had....Concussions and brain injuries are not minor injuries. In order to prevent more stories like mine, concussion awareness needs to be more prevalent among coaches and athletes in our society.”

Recent cases of athletes developing chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), leading, in some cases, to suicide, brought the dangers of concussions to the national spotlight.

McKee highlighted the suicides of Dave Duerson, a former defensive end for football’s Chicago Bears, and Owen Thomas, a University of Pennsylvania defensive end. Both experienced repeated concussions during their careers and, when compared, their brains showed similar pathologies.

An understanding of equipment and its purpose is vital to preventing concussions, said Dr. Jeffrey Kutcher of the University of Michigan’s department of neurology.  

“Helmets are extremely effective pieces of equipment,” Kutcher told the committee. “What helmets do not do well is significantly slow down the contents of the skull when the head is struck and moved suddenly. Since concussions occur not as the result of the forces experienced by the skull, but experienced by the brain, it is extremely unlikely that a helmet can be designed that will prevent concussions to the same significant degree that they have been shown to prevent skull fractures.”

The hearing was intended to focus on improper marketing of sports equipment, which Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., highlighted repeatedly. His examples included a mouth guard, a headband and a supplement whose makers all claimed would help prevent concussions.

Kutcher said anything that says it prevents concussions does not “understand the complexity of the issue.”

The claims can be dangerous because of the confidence that develops when wearing gear that is marketed as “protective.”

“A player who has sustained a concussion now sees this, or the parent sees this, as the answer,” said Mike Oliver, executive director of NOCSAE. “If I put this on, everything’s fine. It’s not only a false sense of security from being protected from the first concussion, but being protected because I just had one and this will give me an extra layer.”

Educating athletes, coaches and parents is the most immediate way to prevent the harm concussions cause, the panel said.

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio

ABC News Radio