Jan 29, 2015
Athletes Donating Brains To Science

By Mario Nishihara

Former New England Patriots linebacker Ted Johnson, along with 15 other athletes from the NFL, NHL, and past Olympic swimming and soccer teams, has agreed to—upon his death—donate his brain to research at the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, a joint venture between the Boston University School of Medicine and Sports Legacy Institute. Johnson and the other donors hope to contribute to productive research on the long-term effects concussions have on the human brain.

“We hope the NFL will take their head out of the sand and acknowledge that there are risks from having repetitive concussions, long-term risks for degenerative brain disease,” Dr. Robert Stern, co-director of the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, told the Boston Herald. “That doesn’t mean the NFL should stop. It just means first there needs to be increased work on protective head gear.”

Concussions have been proven to cause depression, memory loss, confusion, impaired judgment, paranoid and aggressive behavior as part of dementia, and Parkinson’s disease. Johnson’s neurologist has said multiple concussions suffered during his professional career from 2002 to 2005 resulted in permanent memory problems and bouts of depression.

“I shouldn’t have to prove to anybody that there’s something wrong with me,” Johnson told The New York Times. “I’m not being vindictive. I’m not trying to reach up from the grave and get the NFL. But any doctor who doesn’t connect concussions with long-term effects should be ashamed of themselves.”

The research project at the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy is targeted at NFL players, whose average lifespan is 62 years—10 years less than an average person. But football players aren’t the only athletes to suffer concussions.

“It’s a hidden injury,” former Olympic and World Cup women’s soccer player Cindy Parlow told the Times, “especially in female athletes, because it’s seen as a football or male injury … I’m doing this to raise awareness of concussion and the injury, because it’s so misunderstood.”

According to a 2007 study in the Journal of Athletic Training, in high school soccer, females sustained concussions 68 percent more often than their male counterparts. The same study said concussion rates among high school basketball players were almost three times higher for girls than boys.

Other research efforts show no signs of slowing down. The NFL says that by 2010, a study on the effects of concussions on retired players will be complete. And other groups have developed concussion-tracking systems like HIT, DETECT, and ImPACT. A former Harvard University quarterback has even developed a NOCSAE-approved football helmet with an innovative protective system designed specifically to combat concussions.

“Our goal is for people to start taking concussions seriously,” Chris Nowinski, Founder of Sports Legacy Institute and a former professional wrestler and Harvard football player, told the Associated Press. “That means getting off the field when they receive them and finding ways to prevent them … We definitely will be increasing the number of older athletes as we go along so that hopefully none of the 30-year-olds will ever have to donate their brains because enough progress in research will have been made by the time of their deaths.”

Mario Nishihara is a senior Sports Media major at Ithaca College.

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