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NFL, NIH collaborate on traumatic brain injury, concussion research

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Football League (NFL) are working together to learn more about the effects of traumatic brain injuries.

The NIH announced on Monday that it is funding eight projects that will look at the long-term effects of repeated head injuries and how to improve concussion diagnosis.


CTE research sheds light on patients' first symptoms 01:42
“We need to be able to predict which patterns of injury are rapidly reversible and which are not. This program will help researchers get closer to answering some of the important questions about concussion for our youth who play sports and their parents,” Story Landis, director of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) which is part of NIH, said in a press release.

Two studies, which will receive $6 million each in funding, will focus on brain changes over time after a person sustains a head injury or multiple concussions. Researchers will specifically look at brain scans and changes in brain tissue with the hope that these techniques will be able to diagnose signs of traumatic brain injuries in living individuals.

Currently, a degenerative brain disease called chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), that has been linked to repeated traumatic brain injuries, can only be diagnosed after death. Patients who suffer from CTE often exhibit Alzheimer's-like symptoms like memory loss, mood swings, cognitive issues, depression confusion, aggressive behavior and problems with motor skills.

Football player Junior Seau and baseball player Ryan Freel were both diagnosed with CTE after they committed suicide.

UCLA announced that they had developed testing to diagnose CTE in living patients, including NFL Hall of Fame running back Tony Dorsett, but the tests are still preliminary.

The first project will focus on creating guidelines for the different stages of CTE, so doctors can use them to diagnose living patients. It will also list characteristics that make the disease different from other degenerative brain diseases like Alzheimer's  and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, or Lou Gehrig's disease).

The second project looks at the long-term symptoms of mild, moderate and severe traumatic brain injuries and how they are similar to CTE.

In addition, some researchers from those two studies will also help create a database, called the NIH Neurobiobank. The listing would be made up of people who have a confirmed history of traumatic brain injuries who have voiced interest in donating their brain and spinal cord tissues after death for further research.

Favre: Memory loss "a little bit scary to me" 01:22
  The remaining six projects will receive a collective total of over $2 million. These studies will last up to two years and focus on sports-related concussion research, especially since the science of diagnosing concussions isn't exact. They may be expanded into larger studies in the future.

The funding will come from the Sports and Health Research Program, a partnership among the NIH, the NFL, and the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health (FNIH). The NFL previously donated $30 million to the FNIH towards looking into how injuries affected players, especially traumatic brain injuries.  

"We are optimistic that these research projects will help advance the understanding of the complex issues involving traumatic brain injury," Jeff Miller, the NFL's senior vice president of health and safety policy, told the AP.

The NFL recently settled with the NFLPA over concussion lawsuits, agreeing to play $765 million to more than 4,000 former players.

The NFL Player's Association recently announced it is working with the Cleveland Clinic Concussion Center on a project called The Trust, which will provide brain-related health care for former football players who have played at least two seasons.

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