Brain injuries must inspire research push

  • Article by: LEE NYSTROM
  • Updated: June 14, 2012 - 8:49 PM

Leagues owe players leadership in efforts to prevent, cure brain trauma.


NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell

Photo: Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune file

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The airwaves and front pages are filled with stories about brain injuries -- from devastating head trauma sustained by service men and women in Iraq and Afghanistan, to NFL pros, boxers, hockey players and women in soccer leagues.

The tragic suicides of ex-football greats such as Ray Easterling, Dave Duerson and Junior Seau have been tied by many to traumatic injuries to the brain, a result of their careers on the field. They took their lives in such a way as to allow their brains to be studied, consequently helping their fellow athletes.

The power of the microscope has been turned up on the injuries suffered to the brain that often take years to manifest themselves.

More than 2,300 former NFL players have filed a master complaint against the league. I am one of those players.

Right now, I am one of the fortunate ones; I am not currently suffering from symptoms, as are many of my colleagues. I played for the Green Bay Packers after graduating from Macalester College, where I played Division III football. I have been active with the NFL Alumni, served on the board and worked with many others to help former players.

In the past, many of us worried about our knees going bad, shoulder replacements and bad backs, but few focused on the long-term effects of the poundings that our brains absorbed during our years in sports.

In fact, we were taught it was just the opposite; that we would be more focused, more disciplined, and better able to deal with the day-to-day pressures of life because of our involvement in sports.

Now it is time to recognize that sports medicine is about more than the maladies of the joints and bones. It is far more serious and encompassing.

Don't get me wrong, pro football or hockey or soccer isn't croquet. But it is time that we undertake research and action that prevents the brain injuries we are now seeing. And it's time to seek cures for those who are injured.

Even NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, who is fighting the lawsuits, told Sports Illustrated's Peter King in June that the NFL should be "investing in pioneering research that we think could make significant strides in better understanding of the brain.''

We have learned that concussions and brain trauma result in the shrinkage of the hippocampus, the region of the brain that is central to memory and cognitive function, as well as many "psychiatric" functions. We have learned that depression is an outgrowth of such shrinkage, as well.

MRI studies have diagnosed boxers, football players and others with Cognitive Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), and there is promising research indicating that the hippocampus can be rebuilt and cognitive functions restored.

Boston University is doing studies in this area and the biotechnology company Neuralstem has tested drugs on animals with very promising results, and is currently in an FDA-approved trial with a new class of drugs designed to structurally rebuild the hippocampus to treat depression. The NFL should be supporting this research, as should the players' association.

This is about better helmets and equipment, better diagnoses of players in real time, better rules and enforcement on the field -- but it is also about the kinds of solid research necessary to find cures to CTE.

It is past time for the NFL and other sports organizations to support urgent research and treatment of the brain, not just the bone. Real sports medicine means a focus on what is being done to the mind and how best to ensure the total health of our players.

I am one of the lucky ones, maybe because I spent so much time at the end of the bench and less time in the NFL. But I do think about my future and my buddies who are hurting, who are struggling every day. We had each other's backs on the field; we aren't about to stop now.


Lee Nystrom is chairman of the board, emeritus, of the NFL Alumni Association, which advocates for retired players and raises money for children's charities through "Caring for Kids." He is also a member of the Board of Trustees at Macalester College.

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