BU Plans Study that Will Examine Concussions and NFL Players

Boston University (BU) recently announced it will be conducting a new study called DETECT. It is the first study of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) funded by the National Institutes of Health.

DETECT is a three-year study whose goal is to find differences between NFL players and athletes who haven’t experienced hits to the head. While the only current way to confirm CTE is by examining brains after death, DETECT will analyze the brains of living patients.

Until CTE can be diagnosed during life, it’s impossible to develop treatments or to determine how to prevent it, said Robert Stern, co-director of The Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy at BU’s School of Medicine.

The researchers hope that genetic testing and other analyses can help them discover why some athletes who receive repeated blows to the head develop CTE and others do not.

They will also recruit 50 retired elite athletes from non-contact sports such as swimming and tennis to serve as a comparison group. They will be recruited through college alumni associations and sports leagues. Dr. Robert Cantu, Chris Nowinski and Dr. Ann McKee are the other co-directors of the center.

The NFL players will consist of only offensive and defensive linemen, linebackers or defensive backs because they encounter the most repeated brain trauma. The NFL subjects will be between the ages of 40 and 60. They must also suffer from some symptoms associated with CTE such as memory loss, impaired judgment, depression or even progressive dementia. Since evidence suggests that CTE can occur through play after play of knocks to the head, multiple concussions are not a requirement of these subjects. The NFL and the players’ union are helping the center contact former players.

“There’s a sense that former players want to be able to do something to not only potentially help themselves but also to help get the research moving quickly to help others in the future,” said Stern.

Subjects are flown to Boston where they undergo a variety of tests. On day one, subjects spend around two hours in scanners for different kinds of neuroimaging. On day two, subjects have a spinal tap, a lengthy psychiatric interview, neurological and cognitive testing and blood work done.

Two more subjects are scheduled for December and the pace will pick up in January. The athletes are promised confidentiality. The center is seeking additional funding to complete the study.

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