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Thursday
Jan312013

No Device Eliminates Concussion Risk, Experts Say

iStockphoto/Thinkstock(NEW YORK) -- As the long-term consequences of concussions become more clear, a cottage industry has popped up to sell athletes and worried parents products designed to mitigate risks of concussions that even helmets cannot prevent.

Despite the bold claims of some companies, however, many experts say the Holy Grail in contact sports -- a device that prevents concussions -- simply does not exist.  Indeed, experts say, there is no proof that any current device significantly reduces the risk of concussions beyond the protections already provided by helmets.

ABC's Nightline found several products for sale online that aim to reduce the risk of concussions or even alert parents and coaches when a kid has supposedly taken a concussion-level hit.  The claims the manufacturers make are often breathtakingly reassuring.

Concern about the risk of concussion is mounting at every level of the gridiron from the NFL to colleges and even high schools.  Concussions are the most common injury among high school football players.

Jennifer Branin, whose son Tyler Branin is one of the stars of the Woodbridge Warriors high school football team in Irvine, Calif., said "it was scary" the first time he had a concussion.

"He had lost his balance on the field," she said.  "He got up and tried to continue, but couldn't keep his balance."

She said the effects of the concussion lingered, causing Tyler to miss a week of school and football practice.  Even months later, he complained of difficulty concentrating in class.

So Jennifer decided to do something.  She raised money to buy the team helmet inserts by Unequal Technologies for added protection.

Unequal Technologies, one of the highest profile players in this new market, described its product explicitly on the box as "Concussion Reduction Technology," or "CRT."  It is a strip of composite material including bullet-proof Kevlar that is designed to stick inside the helmet as a liner to the existing helmet pads.

Unequal Technologies uses its material in products ranging from padded sleeves to shin guards.  The company counts NFL players and X-Games athletes among its fans.

On board as paid spokesmen are Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Michael Vick and James Harrison, a linebacker for the Pittsburgh Steelers.  Harrison is one of the hardest-hitting guys in the NFL and said he uses Unequal Technology's liners in his helmet.

"I don't know what it's made of but it works," Harrison says in one of Unequal's promotional videos.  "I really don't feel like I'm taking a risk."

Vick wasn't wearing the CRT product when he suffered a season-ending concussion in November, but he has since promised that he will be wearing it when he returns to the field next season.

Rob Vito, founder and CEO of the Kennett Square, Pa.-based company, said he worked with scientists to create a military-grade composite material that can help protect athletes from all kinds of injuries from head to toe.

Unequal Technologies' product tests were conducted at the Southern Impact Research Center in Rockford, Tenn., one of the nation's leading testing labs for sports equipment.  Engineer Dave Halstead, the lab's technical director, said it's important to understand that helmets have come a long way in keeping players safe from a certain kind of head injury, the kind caused by direct, linear force.

But when asked if there was a device or an add-on currently on the market that can fully protect players' from the risk of head injury, Halstead said "absolutely not."

"That magic bullet, that if you just do this you can continue to play the way you are and you're immune from injury, it just doesn't work," he said.  "There is no such device."

The modern helmet already offers excellent protection against direct hits, which produce sharp, linear forces against the skull.  But many doctors believe sports-induced concussions are caused by shearing, rotational forces, which occur when the head snaps back and swerves around on the neck, slamming the brain against the inside of the skull.

There is no proof that products like Unequal Technologies' strips protect against those injuries -- the ones suspected of frequently causing concussions.

Halstead's testing did show that the Unequal strips can reduce the severity of a linear, direct impact from some angles, but not from others.  But even Vito acknowledged he cannot prove those results reduce the risk of concussions.

"No, we can't make that claim at this point, it's too early on," he said.

But Vito said his company only claims to "help reduce the possibility of head injury," adding, "We never mention the word 'concussion,'" although the product's name is "Concussion Reduction Technology."

"There might be some confusion," Vito acknowledged, maintaining that his company is not claiming its product reduce concussions, saying, "One is a name and one is a claim and our claim is that we help reduce the possibility of head injury."

After the ABC News interview, Unequal Technologies sent Nightline what it said would be the new packaging for its product, which says just "CRT" now.  The words "Concussion Reduction Technology" have been removed.

Copyright 2013 ABC News Radio

Wednesday
Jan302013

Watching the Super Bowl Is a Bad Idea for a First Date, Survey Says

Jupiterimages/Thinkstock(NEW YORK) -- Millions of people gather at Super Bowl parties to watch “The Big Game,” but a new survey shows a majority of singles say they would never bring a “first date” to a Super Bowl bash.

A survey conducted by the dating service Just Lunch finds 53 percent of singles answering no when asked, “Would you bring a ‘first date’ to a Super Bowl party?”  When broken down by gender, 54 percent of single women and 50 percent of guys were against the idea.

“The Super Bowl makes a lousy first date because you’re paying more attention to the TV set than the person you’re with,” says Irene LaCota, a spokesperson for Just Lunch.

But for people who have been dating for a while, a Super Bowl party seems to be a good idea.  Eighty-eight percent of men and 75 percent of women responded positively to watching the game together.

The survey did find 21 percent of female respondents admitting that they watch the game with their dates, but it’s not their favorite thing to do.

There was sharp disagreement between the genders when asked where they would rather watch the big game.   Fifty-three percent of women would rather attend a Super Bowl party, compared to 38 percent of the men.

Watching the game at home was the first choice of 53 percent of the guys and 32 percent of the ladies.

Fifteen percent of women and 9 percent of men prefer to watch the Super Bowl at a sports bar.

Despite all the interest in the Super Bowl by members of both sexes, the survey finds that watching a football game, either on TV or in person, produces very low odds of meeting someone you’d like to date.  Just 5 percent of the male respondents and 6 percent of the ladies replied “yes” when asked, “Have you ever dated someone you met while watching a football game or at a Super Bowl party?”

The Just Lunch survey involved more than 600 online responses.

Copyright 2013 ABC News Radio

Tuesday
Jan292013

Super Bowl Superstitions or Obsessive Compulsive Disorder?

Wendy Hope/Stockbyte/Thinkstock(NEW YORK) -- As football fans don their unwashed jerseys, sit in their favorite couch seats or line up their remote controls like Robert De Niro's character in Silver Linings Playbook, many might wonder whether their Super Bowl superstitions might be crossing over into something more serious -- such as obsessive compulsive disorder.

People with obsessive compulsive disorder, or OCD, often associate certain colors and numbers with bad luck, just like people who don't have OCD, but there are a few critical differences: When OCD patients see these colors or numbers -- or have other intrusive thoughts -- they feel they must perform rituals to avoid catastrophic outcomes, said Jeff Szymansky, the executive director of the International OCD Foundation.

"OCD gets in your head and says, 'Look, this is going to happen if you don't act,'" said Shannon Shy, who lived with severe OCD for years until he found a way to manage it.  "It's as real to you as the sun rising."

Shy, who is on the International OCD Foundation's board, remembers how he would have to drive past the same log in the road 20 or 30 times to be sure it wasn't a dead body.  That was at the height of his disorder, when he hid the problem from the world and contemplated suicide.

"You decide, 'How do I want to spend my day?' but someone with OCD and superstitions doesn't do that," Szymansky said.  "It's distressing.  It's a have to, not an I prefer to."

People with OCD -- more than two million adults nationwide -- experience intrusive thoughts -- obsessions -- which can include fear of harm, contamination or losing control.  To get rid of these thoughts, they perform rituals -- compulsions -- such as checking their stoves or washing their hands.  Even praying can be a compulsion.

In Silver Linings Playbook, the filmmakers showed De Niro's character positioning remote controls just so and asking his son Pat (played by Bradley Cooper) to sit in a specific spot on the couch during Eagles games for good luck.  Neither of these behaviors necessarily signaled OCD, Szymansky said.  But the anxiety De Niro's character displayed when he argued with his son for not sitting in the seat sounded to Szymansky like OCD.

OCD differs from putting on socks in a particular order to win a game, said Dr. Todd Peters, a psychiatrist at Vanderbilt Psychiatric Hospital in Tennessee

"That's not really going to get in the way of life," Peters said, adding that, in contrast, the person who anxiously has to repeat everything he did the day his team won probably has a problem.  "Because life is ever-changing, they can't expect other people to buy into their ritual or compulsion. ... People get so stuck in their minds that they can't get off that topic."

Peters said people with OCD get "stuck" trying to rid themselves of anxious feelings through certain behaviors.  Some of the behaviors are fairly logical, such as compulsive hand-washing to avoid germ contamination, but others are bizarre, such as needing to see a certain animal run to the right to keep a family member from dying.  He's seen patients exhibit both.

Peters said it's important that people with OCD know that a combination of drugs and exposure therapy can help them manage their symptoms.  About a third of the people who have OCD find a resolution, another third will have episodes that come and go, and a final third will struggle with moderate to severe symptoms throughout their lives.

Copyright 2013 ABC News Radio

Monday
Jan072013

Will Notre Dame Use Painkiller in Championship Game on Monday?

iStockphoto/Thinkstock(NEW YORK) -- Unlike championship rival Alabama, the team doctor for Notre Dame football, Dr. James Moriarity, told ABC News he does not rule out the "occasional use" of the controversial painkiller Toradol on game days to treat Fighting Irish players if "medically indicated."

By contrast, Alabama team doctor Dr. James Robinson said he has "never used it" on Crimson Tide players and will not use it during the BCS National Championship Game on Monday.

"I've actually been against it the whole time," Robinson told ABC News over the weekend in Miami, where the BCS game will be played.  "It's something we've never done."

Monday's game takes place amid a growing controversy in college and professional sports over the use of painkillers on players in general, and of Toradol specifically because of the possible increased risks cited on its label of heart attack, stroke, kidney failure and internal bleeding.

Toradol was developed for use in hospitals for the short-term treatment of post-operative pain but over the last decade has found its way into team training rooms in major sports.

"It's a good pain medication," Robinson, the Alabama team doctor, said.  "So post-operatively, and after an acute injury before we get them to surgery, things like that, we've used the medication... But we don't use it as a preventative medicine if you will."

Prior to the ABC News interviews with the two doctors over the weekend, college officials at Notre Dame and Alabama had refused to answer questions about whether its football players were given the powerful painkiller on game days.

An ABC News investigation found the generic version of Toradol is still being used in college and professional football programs across the country even as many team doctors have stopped using it because of concerns about the various risks.

Robinson said the use of such painkillers goes against his philosophy.

"If they're too injured, they're too hurt to play, we don't let them play," he told ABC News.

Notre Dame's Moriarity said he only administers the oral version of the painkiller and has not used Toradol injections "most of this year."

Moriarity denied the use of Toradol does not give injured Notre Dame players an edge, but said the painkiller is used on game days.  "When else would you use it?" he said.

"We have used it for people in pain from certain circumstances," he said.  Moriarty would not elaborate on specifics but said, "I don't think you could say it allowed them to play when they couldn't otherwise."

Moriarity said Notre Dame asks, "Are they fit to play?"

The ABC News report on Toradol focused on a former USC lineman, Armond Armstead, who claims in a lawsuit that a season-long series of Toradol injections by the team doctor resulted in a heart attack he suffered following the 2010 season.

The USC team doctor, Dr. James Tibone, told ABC News he continues to use Toradol injections on game day for injured players but said such shots did not involve any risk.

"These are healthy people," he told ABC News.  

The NCAA does not regulate or keep track of the use of painkillers or Toradol, unlike professional sports leagues.  NCAA officials have declined to comment on the ABC News reports.

Copyright 2013 ABC News Radio

Saturday
Jan052013

Oklahoma Sooners Player Says Tackling Cancer Was 'a Team Effort'

ABC News(NORMAN, Okla.) -- Austin Woods, an offensive lineman for the Oklahoma Sooners, plays hard, whether it's on the football field, in the classroom or tackling cancer.

"A lot of it is up here, between your ears," Woods said, "you know, your attitude and the heart you have and just the mentality you attack every day with."

During early spring practices, the 6-foot 4, 293-pound junior offensive lineman felt something wasn't right.

"I thought it was mono. I didn't know what it was," he said.

In late April, Woods was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma, a form of blood cancer.

It seemed inevitable that he would be sidelined for the season while he underwent twice-monthly chemotherapy treatments, but Woods was determined to not let cancer get the best of him.

"One day, he'd miss a Monday practice because he was at the hospital getting chemotherapy, and then Tuesday he'd be out there on the practice field," said coach Bob Stoops.

Despite the harsh rounds of chemotherapy, Woods continued to excel on the field and in the classroom, doing well enough to be named an academic All-American.

 

He posted updates and affirmations on his Twitter feed, all of them tagged #BeatCancer50, a reference to his number on the field.

His fellow offensive lineman supported him by tweeting back and shaving their heads in solidarity.

"It was my teammates, my coaches, my family and all my friends," Woods said. "It was truly a team effort."

Woods said he also took inspiration from his mother, Liz Woods, who didn't miss a single day of work when she was treated for breast cancer 15 years ago.

In early October, Woods announced that his cancer was in remission.

"Done with chemo!!! Thanks everyone for all the support throughout all my treatments!" he tweeted.

On Friday, the junior offensive lineman fulfilled a lifelong dream to play in the Cotton Bowl Classic.

The Sooners lost to Texas A&M 41-13, but for Woods, it was a triumph after a tough year.

"It really taught me a lot about myself and what, you know, attitude and the right mentality can do towards overcoming obstacles in your life," he said.

Copyright 2013 ABC News Radio

Thursday
Jan032013

Despite Risks, College Football Still Using Powerful Painkiller

iStockphoto/Thinkstock(NEW YORK) -- Despite stated label risks of possible fatal heart attack, stroke or organ failure, college football players across the country are still being given injections of a powerful painkiller on game days so they can play while injured, an ABC News investigation has found.

The drug, a generic version of Toradol, is recommended for the short-term treatment of post-operative pain in hospitals but has increasingly been used in college and professional sports, and its use is not monitored by the NCAA, the governing body of college sports.

Only two of the country's top football programs, Oklahoma and the University of Nebraska, reported to ABC News that they have limited or stopped the use of the drug in the wake of growing concern about its risks.

Oklahoma said it stopped using the painkillers in 2012, but records show they were used consistently in 2010 and 2011.

Nebraska said its doctors now restrict its use.

"While team physicians reserve the option to use injectable Toradol, it is rarely prescribed, and its use has been avoided this season following reports of heightened concern of potential adverse effects," Nebraska said in a statement to ABC News.

The top two college football programs, Notre Dame and Alabama, refused to answer questions from ABC News about the painkiller.  They play for the national college championship on Jan. 7.

Controversy surrounding the drug has grown this year following claims by former USC lineman Armond Armstead that he suffered a heart attack after the 2010 season, at age 20, following shots of generic Toradol administered over the course of the season by the team doctor and USC personnel.

"I thought, you know, can't be me, you know?  This doesn't happen to kids like me," Armstead told ABC News.

The manufacturers' warning label for generic Toradol (ketorolac tromethamine) says the drug is not intended for prolonged periods or for chronic pain and cites gastrointestinal bleeding and kidney failure as possible side effects of the drug.

In addition, like other drugs in its class, the generic Toradol label warns "may cause an increased risk of serious cardiovascular thrombotic events, myocardial infarction (heart attack), and stroke, which can be fatal."

"This risk may increase with duration of use," the so-called black box warning reads.

In a lawsuit against the school and the doctor, Dr. James Tibone, Armstead claims the school ignored the stated risks of the drug and never told him about them.

"He was a race horse, a prize race horse that needed to be on that field no matter what," said Armstead's mother Christa.  "Whether that was a risk to him or not."

Armstead says he and many other USC players would receive injections of what was known only as "the shot" in a specific training room before big games and again at half-time.

"No discussion, just go in.  He would give the shot and I would be on my way," Armstead told ABC News.

Armstead said the shot made him feel "super human" despite severe ankle, and later shoulder pain, and that without it, he never could have played in big USC games against Notre Dame and UCLA.

"You can't feel any pain, you just feel amazing," the former star player said.

USC declined to comment on Armstead's claims, or the use of Toradol to treat Trojan players.

An ABC News crew and reporter were ordered off the practice field when they tried to question USC coach Lane Kiffin about the use of the painkiller.

Later at a news conference promoting the Sun Bowl, where USC was defeated earlier this week, Kiffin said he had no idea when or if Toradol was being used on his players, or about its risks.

"Well, if that was the case then, yeah, I did not know that until you told me," Kiffin said.  "You educated me, thank you."

USC and Dr. Tibone have asked a judge to throw out Armstead's lawsuit, and in a brief interview with ABC News, Dr. Tibone denied any wrongdoing.

He said he could not comment on whether he failed to tell Armstead of the possible risks of the prescription painkiller, because of the pending lawsuit.

The team doctor did confirm to ABC News that he used Toradol to treat Armstead's pain and that he continues to use the drug on other USC players.

"These are young, healthy people," he said.  "We still use it, we use it diligently."

Whatever the possible risks, an expert on medical ethics, Professor Arthur Caplan of New York University, said team doctors have an obligation to tell players.

"Even if you're the team physician, you still have to follow the standard of care and informed consent," Caplan told ABC News.  "You better be disclosing all risks."

In addition to Oklahoma and Nebraska, only four of the other top college football programs questioned by ABC News said Toradol is not used by their team doctors: Ohio State, Oregon State, Boise State and Georgia.

Most schools refused to answer whether players are treated with Toradol, but four confirmed its doctors use the painkiller: Clemson, Texas A&M, San Jose State and USC.

In professional sports, the NFL, NHL and NBA allow the use of Toradol but require teams to keep close track of injections and report the information to the league.

The NCAA, the governing body of college sports, has no such requirement to regulate or even track the use of painkillers, a spokesperson told ABC News.

In a statement, the NCAA said it requires member schools to follow state and federal laws about medical treatment and prescription medicine, and publishes guidelines that include "best practices" for the handling of medication.

"NCAA members have decided that it is their individual responsibility to assure compliance with appropriate medication and treatment guidelines," said the statement.

"If we keep track of what happens to, let's say, horses in horse racing, don't we owe it to the athletes to keep track of what's going on in college sports?" asked Professor Caplan.

Copyright 2013 ABC News Radio

Wednesday
Jan022013

High School Football Player Victim of 'Second Impact Syndrome'

Courtesy Becky Lehe(NEW YORK) -- Cody Lehe's headache following a helmet-to-helmet hit in a 2006 high school football game was so bad that he asked his mother to take him to the doctor.  His CT scan a few days later came back normal, but the decision to go to practice the day after that would change his life forever.

After taking a shoulder hit during practice, Lehe, now 23, became a victim of what doctors call "Second Impact Syndrome."  His teammates thought he was having a seizure, but he was actually falling into a coma, with massive brain swelling and an irregular heartbeat.

It's been six years since that day, and Lehe lives with his parents outside Lafayette, Ind., where he struggles to recall things that happened hours earlier and can no longer walk on his own.

"I think the biggest thing is we have got to get the kids to understand to listen to their bodies," Lehe's mother, Becky Lehe, told ABC News.  "I think he had this discussion with himself, saying, 'I feel like crap, but my CT scan is fine, so I'll play.'"

Second Impact Syndrome, or SIS, has a 90 percent mortality rate, said Dr. Michael Turner, who led a case study on Cody that was published Tuesday in the Journal of Neurosurgery.  Of the 30 SIS cases in medical literature, Turner said it always happens to high-school or college-aged people.  He's never seen SIS in a professional football player.

"It's probably something to do with the immature brain, because our brain really keeps growing until you're 18, 19 years old," Turner told ABC News.

For years, doctors hypothesized that teens who suffered from SIS actually had blood clots from their first concussions that went unnoticed and ultimately triggered brain swelling and further bleeding after the second impact, Turner said.  Cody's CT scan, which is the first to exist for an SIS patient between hits, proved the hypothesis wrong.

"We've looked at it.  It was flat-out normal," Turner said.  "Our patient had many tiny blood clots, but they weren't the cause of his illness."

Instead, Cody's brain sent a message to the rest of his body for more blood, which filled the veins and arteries in his head and caused his brain to swell against the skull, Turner said.  The pressure caused further injury and damage.

His mother recalled the first hit, though neither she nor her husband saw it.  Both players "had their bells rung," Becky said, but they kept playing.  When Cody talked to Becky afterward, he told her he had a headache, but it was nothing he hadn't experienced before.  No one thought it was a concussion because he hadn't passed out or thrown up.

The following weekend, Cody tailgated a college football game and visited a college campus with his girlfriend.  By Monday, he asked to go to the doctor.

"Mr. Tough Guy never asks to go to the doctor," Becky said.

But everything was fine.

After returning to practice and taking the second hit, he walked over to the water fountain, and then fell forward into another player, Becky said.  The ambulance technicians told her later that they didn't think he would make it to the hospital.

After 55 days in the intensive care unit -- his football jersey number -- Cody was transferred to the rehabilitation section of the hospital, where he would stay but was not well enough to participate in any activities.  He left the hospital after 98 days, having suffered temporary cardiac arrest, hypotension, pneumonia, renal failure and sepsis.  He could not walk or talk.

Since then, Cody has regained the ability to speak, but still lacks short-term memory.  He can walk on a treadmill for six minutes at a time with his mother or father at his side, but he can't balance on his own and depends on a wheelchair to get around.

"For someone who wasn't supposed to make it through, he's beaten all the odds," Becky said, adding that she's able to see a different side to her son that had previously been reserved only for his school friends.  "He was a class clown.  He was hilarious, but we didn't see that much at home."

She said now they call him their entertainer, and they're encouraged by his progress.

Copyright 2013 ABC News Radio

Tuesday
Jun262012

Drew Brees Teams Up Against Concussions in School Sports

Grant Halverson/Getty Images(NEW YORK) -- Drew Brees, the quarterback for the New Orleans Saints, has taken some pretty hard hits in his career and knows the dangers involved with playing football professionally.

That’s why he’s lent his name to the PACE program -- Protecting Athletes through Concussion Education -- to make the sport safer.  The PACE campaign teams with ImPACT, a widely-used computerized concussion evaluation system.  All the NFL teams and many NHL teams use this technology.

PACE is a program that provides free concussion testing for more than 3,300 middle and high schools and youth sports organizations nationwide.  Their ultimate goal is to have one million kids tested this year, making it the largest concussion baseline program ever.

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

Baseline tests are important, doctors say, because they show what can’t be seen -- cognitive function.  Baseline testing, together with a preseason evaluation, help keep concussions to a minimum, and reduce their effects when they happen.

PACE is the first national program of its kind to offer the ImPACT baseline tests.  The program was started by the Dick’s Sporting Goods Foundation.

Starting June 26, parents, athletes, coaches, teachers and anyone who wants to sign their school up can log onto dickssportinggoods.com/PACE to receive the free testing.

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio

Friday
May252012

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

Monday
May072012

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."

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