The National Football League, one of the largest funders of brain research in the U.S., has been subtly working to influence research efforts and downplay the link between brain disease and the beloved sport, a new report from ESPN’s Outside the lines claims.
On the face of it, the league and its partners seem to altruistically support scientific studies on the effects of hard-hitting sports, such as football, donating more than $100 million to brain research that might otherwise have gone unsupported. Behind the scenes, however, the organization has tried to funnel the money back to NFL-affiliated scientists and waived contributions when researchers came up with inconvenient data, the study found.
In light of the funding environment, some brain researchers have compared the NFL’s actions to Big Tobacco’s actions at a time when the cigarette companies spent millions of dollars to buy off researchers and fund studies that denied links between smoking and serious health effects.
In particular, the research raises new questions about a recent study by NFL-funded researchers that the league used to justify ditching impact-tracking sensors in players’ helmets. While the data showed that two sensors tested were 96 percent accurate in detecting impacts and only a few degrees difference in detecting the point of impact, the researchers and the competition argued that the sensors were significantly flawed and not in the helmets of players should be used. .
Hot on the heels of that decision comes a new animal study from independent researchers that suggests that taking consecutive head concussions without any rest in between could lead to permanent damage — something that would be easier to avoid if those blows were tracked electronically.
“This whole idea that we don’t need sensors at all, because they don’t give us 100 percent accuracy, is really the wrong way to go about science,” Purdue University biomedical engineer Thomas Talavage told ESPN. Such data would be “ridiculously valuable,” he continued, “because if nothing else…regardless of the system, you have a good idea of how much exposure in terms of raw numbers.…How often [players] gets hit? How often are they hit in practice? And how often do they get hit in games?”
Talavage and a colleague at Purdue told ESPN that they used to receive research funding from the NFL, but after seeing the effects of competition money on other researchers’ work, the pair have since given up on the funding option. “We think there’s a pretty clear line between the research they did before they were league funded or NFL-tied and the research they did after they were league-tied,” Talavage said.
The NFL only recently became a major funder of brain research. Prior to 2009, the league conducted its own studies, which repeatedly found no association between playing football and brain disease. After that internal research ceased, the league began providing significant contributions and donations to independent research efforts, most notably the National Institutes of Health. In 2012, the NFL pledged $30 million to the NIH to support brain research following the suicide death of Junior Seau, the Hall of Fame linebacker who played for the San Diego Chargers. But there were many conditions attached to the money, according to documents released pursuant to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. The NFL could offer “research drafts” at its discretion and withhold funding, which it did.
In 2014, the league agreed that $16 million of that money would fund a study on chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease that causes dementia, aggression, and depression and is believed to be caused by repeated concussions and subconcussive blows to the brain. head. Specifically, the study would attempt to detect CTE in living people, as the condition is currently diagnosed only after death.
The NIH announced the funding opportunity and initiated a typical grant review process. NFL-affiliated scientists applied for the funding to conduct the study themselves, but after the NIH awarded the money to an independent group — researchers who had openly assumed that many professional football players likely have CTE — the NFL-affiliated scientists fought to the decision. When the NIH backed the grant decision, the NFL withdrew from funding the work.
The NIH provided taxpayer money to fund the study. Yet millions of other NFL-donated dollars have been spent funding research conducted by NFL-affiliated scientists, the study found.
One such study, published last year in Annals of Biomedical Engineering, tested the accuracy of two helmet sensors, already used in some university teams and widely used in research. The authors found that the sensors were 96 percent accurate at detecting impact, but they quibbled with the sensors’ ability to detect where on the helmet an impact occurred. “Overall, our lab findings indicate that users should not rely solely on these devices to accurately measure the direction and magnitude of single impacts to a soccer player’s head at all impact locations,” they concluded.
During the peer review process of the study at the Annals of Biomedical Engineering, editors there questioned the authors’ standard for rating the sensors, writing that “it raises questions about the overall purpose of this study (i.e., no sensor could ever pass this),” according to emails obtained on the basis of a FOIA request.
Still, the study has been published and the NFL has cited the work as a reason why it should refrain from using sensors in players’ helmets. The data is sorely missed, especially as new research suggests that repeated blows to the head — in quick succession with no rest in between — may be key to developing permanent damage.
The new study, published in the American Journal of Pathology, tracked the recovery of mice after small head thrusts (expunged while the mice were sedated) mimicking mild concussions in humans. Researchers found that the impact damaged a small percentage of the rodents’ brain cell connections, and those connections would repair on their own after three days of rest. But when the researchers gave the mice no rest days and instead banged their heads every day for a month, their brains didn’t recover. Inflammation and lost connections lingered and got progressively worse, the authors report. That damage was still present a year after the last impact.
Although the study was only done in a mouse model, researchers think it provides valuable clues about how permanent brain damage can develop in humans, especially professional athletes.
Annals of Biomedical Engineering2015. DOI: 10.1007/s10439-015-1420-6 (About DOIs).
American Journal of Pathology2015. DOI: 10.1016/j.ajpath.2015.11.006