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NFL Players To be Encouraged to Donate Brains


On the heels of increasing evidence of links between concussions, brain damage, and dementia among football players, the National Football League (NFL) is partnering with Boston University Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, according to the Associated Press. The league plans to ask current and former NFL players to agree to donate their brains to the Center to facilitate their research.

Traumatic encephalopathy is a progressive degenerative brain disease that occurs in athletes and other individuals who have a history of repetitive concussions. Although the condition has been known to affect boxers since the 1920s, recent research has confirmed cases in retired professional football players and wrestlers who have a history of head trauma that includes multiple concussions. The trauma then triggers progressive brain degeneration that eventually develops into progressive dementia.

The cooperation of the NFL in the pursuit of research on traumatic encephalopathy is important on several fronts. Robert Cantu, a co-director of the Boston University center, believes the league’s move lets the players know that the NFL is concerned about this problem and it “is doing everything it can do find out about the risks and the preventive strategies that can be implemented.”

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The NFL would like retired players to consider offering their brains for study after their death, and it will also contact retired football players who have been diagnosed with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease and who are receiving benefits from the NFL to request their families consider donating the players’ brains to the Center.

The Center announced on December 18 that a recently deceased former National Hockey League player, Reggie Fleming, had suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy. His brain had been donated to the Center and the disease was diagnosed by co-director Ann McKee, MD, who has also recently identified the disease in twelve deceased football players and five boxers.

Dr. McKee noted in the University’s news release that it was the first time the Center had found chronic traumatic encephalopathy in a retired professional hockey player, and that “the changes in his brain were very similar to the changes we’ve found in football players and boxers.” Fleming’s family reported that he had suffered approximately 20 concussions while playing hockey.

The Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy is a collaborative effort between Boston University School of Medicine and Sports Legacy Institute. The Center’s mission is to conduct state-of-the-art research of chronic traumatic encephalopathy. The NFL’s requests to players and their families for brain donations will hopefully do much to further the research at the Center and heighten awareness of the dangers of head trauma and the development among NFL players and other athletes. The NFL had also previously formed a medical committee to study concussions and their effects on players. That committee is currently on hold pending replacement of the two co-chairmen, who quit in November.

Associated Press
Boston University news release, Dec. 18, 2009