NFL Players Association to Support Brain Trauma Research at Boston University

Collaboration Will Accelerate Groundbreaking Research on Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy

The National Football League Players Association (NFLPA) announced today that it will collaborate with the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy (CSTE) at Boston University School of Medicine (BUSM) to support the Center’s efforts to advance the study of the effects of repetitive brain trauma in athletes.

Brain trauma in football is now seen as a public health crisis as 10 former NFL players have been diagnosed with Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), a progressive degenerative brain disease caused by repetitive concussive and subconcussive head trauma. In October, NFL Hall of Fame recipient Lou Creekmur joined John Grimsley, Tom McHale and Wally Hilgenberg as former NFL players who were diagnosed post-mortem with this devastating disease that leads to dementia. Creekmur died from complications of dementia following a 30-year decline that included cognitive and behavioral issues such as memory loss, lack of attention and organization skills, and increasingly intensive angry and aggressive outbursts. To date, all 12 of the retired college or professional football players that have been studied post-mortem have exhibited this brain disease.

The NFLPA has made player health and safety a top priority under Executive Director DeMaurice Smith, who succeeded Gene Upshaw in March 2009. The NFLPA has taken an increasingly active role in the concussion and brain trauma debate, recently demanding that the NFL find new leadership for their controversial Mild Traumatic Brain Injury Committee, which quickly led to the resignation of the NFL committee co-chairs. In October, the NFLPA announced the formation of its own Concussion and Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) Committee, chaired by Medical Director Thom Mayer and Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Sean Morey.

This new collaboration between the NFLPA and the CSTE gives the NFLPA a mechanism to support groundbreaking research that is directly benefiting current and former NFL players. The CSTE was founded in 2008 to conduct state-of-the-art research on CTE, including the neuropathology and pathogenesis, clinical presentation and course, genetics and other risk factors for CTE, as well as prevention and treatment.

Dr. Thom Mayer, NFLPA medical director said, “We will encourage our players, both retired and current, to participate in this independent academic research at Boston University School of Medicine. In addition, this collaboration will allow us to educate our players on the findings as quickly as possible so that they can make informed decisions regarding their own health. Our goal is to protect our players to the fullest extent possible given the nature of the game of professional football. This ongoing research is a critical piece of that effort.”

Current and former NFL players and their families have been supporting the CSTE since its inception, and today 61 retired and four current NFL players have pledged to donate their brain and spinal cord to the CSTE after death, including Sean Morey of the Arizona Cardinals, Matt Birk of the Baltimore Raven, and Lofa Tatupu of the Seattle Seahawks. The donors also have agreed to participate in longitudinal clinical research led by CSTE co-director Robert Stern, PhD and are joined by nearly 200 athletes in other sports like hockey, soccer, lacrosse, boxing, and rugby. In addition, the families of eight deceased NFL players already have donated their loved one’s brain and spinal cord to the CSTE Brain Bank, led by neuropathologist Ann McKee, MD. Her groundbreaking findings on CTE in retired NFL players has been featured in scientific literature and in the media over the past several months and has led to a significant increase in the awareness of the importance of this disease.

“The new association with the NFLPA will facilitate our research tremendously, allowing us to discover the risk factors for CTE and methods of diagnosing and treating the disease. This, in turn, will yield tremendous benefits for current and retired NFL players,” said Stern. Robert Cantu, MD neurosurgeon and co-director of the CSTE, added, “The long-term consequences of repetitive brain trauma in sports are a tremendous public health problem. CTE is the only fully preventable cause of dementia. This research will allow us to make informed, research-based changes to the way contact sports are played, which will decrease the risk of CTE for professional athletes and for the millions of children who participate in youth sports.”

In October, three co-directors of the CSTE Cantu and McKee, and Christopher Nowinski were among 16 experts testifying before the US House of Representatives Judiciary Committee, chaired by Representative John Conyers (D-Mich). Since the hearing, the NFL announced radical changes to its concussion management policies that will benefit the health and wellness of players.

CTE is characterized by the build-up of a toxic protein called tau in the form of neurofibrillary tangles (NFTs) and neuropil threads (NTs) throughout the brain. The abnormal protein initially impairs the normal functioning of the brain and eventually kills brain cells. Early on, CTE sufferers may display clinical symptoms such as memory impairment, emotional instability, erratic behavior, depression and problems with impulse control. However, CTE eventually progresses to full-blown dementia. Although similar to Alzheimer’s disease, CTE is an entirely distinct disease. CTE is caused by repetitive concussive or subconcussive blows to the head, but the symptoms of the disease may not be evident for years or decades after the head trauma.