Beyond the Super Bowl Hype: Can NFL Players Be Saved From Brain Damage

Friday, 01 Feb 2013 04:24 PM

By Steve Plamann

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The NFL faces an uncertain future because of the growing controversy over player head injuries. In the run up to this year’s Super Bowl, the news has gone from bad to worse for the league.
 
First, the family of the late Junior Seau – a star linebacker who committed suicide – sued the league over brain injuries he suffered while playing.  Then a new study was released that examined the brains of five living ex-NFL players. All five showed a precursor to Alzheimer’s disease.
 
The research was led by Dr. Gary Small, author of The Mind Health Report newsletter.  He told Newsmax Health that his study actually provides hope for the future of football because it opens the door to ways the game can be made safer. The study also may provide a gateway for new treatments for Alzheimer’s disease.

 
“What we are hoping to do with Alzheimer’s disease and these athletes who have had repeated blows to the head is to detect the problems in the brain before there’s extensive damage so we can develop new treatments to protect a healthy brain, rather than try to repair damage once it’s extensive,” Dr. Small said.
 
The scanning technique that Dr. Small and his colleagues at UCLA used makes it possible for the first time to see protein markers in the brain for degenerative disease prior to death. In the past, it was possible to find the brain damage only in an autopsy.

ALERT: 5 Signs You’ll Get Alzheimer’s Disease

 “It’s important because it allows us for the first time to see this disease in living people,” said Dr. Small. “We are able to detect these proteins years before people have symptoms.”
 
Of the five players who underwent the scan, three had mild cognitive impairment, one had full-blown dementia, and one had normal cognitive function. The players ranged from their 50s to their 70s. Even though the sample size was small, it was still shocking to those connected to the sport that all of the former players examined showed signs of brain deterioration.
 
Although the research is preliminary, “We published this study because the findings were so striking we wanted to get it out to the scientific community,” Dr. Small said.
 
When the players were told of the results, that markers for Alzheimer’s were found in their brains, “Some were surprised,” Dr. Small said. “It can be upsetting to see this in your brain.”
 
Overall, NFL players have four times greater risk of dying of Alzheimer’s than the general population.
 
But Dr. Small, UCLA’s Parow-Solomon professor on aging and a professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior, said that there is hope.
 
In the wake of his study, research promises to accelerate that could provide new treatment for head trauma and Alzheimer’s, Dr. Small said.
 
“We think this is important to military personnel, auto accident victims – anybody who’s had head trauma,” he said.
 
The NFL recently donated $30 million to the National Institutes of Health to stimulate research into brain trauma. The players union is also funding a $100 million Harvard study on head injury.

ALERT: 5 Signs You’ll Get Alzheimer’s Disease

In the absence of a cure for degenerative brain disease, Dr. Small’s book, “The Alzheimer’s Prevention Program,” outlines ways that he believes can prevent memory problems and dementia in both football players and non-athletes. “Aerobic conditioning, healthy nutrition, stress management, and learning to compensate for memory decline through specific techniques will delay the onset of symptoms often for years,” he said.  
   
 
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