26 September 2008. Growing postmortem evidence suggests that repeated early-life concussion sets off a pathological cascade in the brain that expresses in midlife as dementia, gait problems, behavioral changes such as depression, and even early death. This has led to calls for more careful monitoring and regulation of athletes involved in contact sports, such as American football, hockey, and boxing (see related ARF live discussion). Others, including the National Football League, counter that there is insufficient evidence to draw any firm correlations. A first step toward helping to fill the gap between those two positions would be to gather extensive medical histories on the limited number of autopsy cases from which the evidence is being drawn. As reported in a recent article in the New York Times, which has led the charge in bringing the dangers of repeated concussion to light, a number of athletes have agreed to donate their brains to a Boston University (BU) research program that will look at the long-term effects of concussion.
The donated tissue will be examined by the new BU Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, co-directed by Ann McKee and Robert Stern. In addition to carrying out eventual postmortem analysis, the center will examine the athletes periodically and record medical history, such as prior and new concussions and any physiological changes that may be relevant. In his New York Times article, Alan Schwarz reported that 12 athletes, including six N.F.L. players, a hockey player, and a former U.S.A women’s soccer team player, had signed up for the program. “That number has since risen to 16,” Stern told ARF via e-mail, and includes athletes from boxing, professional wrestling, basketball, and swimming. The recruitment is thanks to an ongoing collaboration between Boston University School of Medicine and the nonprofit Sports Legacy Institute (SLI) , co-founded by Chris Nowinski and Robert Cantu, co-director of the Neurological Sports Injury Center at Brigham & Women’s Hospital, Boston. Nowinski, who played football for Harvard University and is an ex-professional wrestler, has been instrumental in getting fellow athletes to become donors and to consider the long-term consequences of concussion. More information on the donor program can be obtained at SLI, and read the full New York Times article .—Tom Fagan.