A leading concussion researcher at Hennepin County Medical Center is inviting NFL players who suffered head injuries and their siblings to participate in research that could yield new discoveries about the course and severity of brain trauma.
Dr. Uzma Samadani developed an eye-tracking system that detects concussions based on patients’ eye movements as they watch music videos, and has studied how variations in brain scans and blood tests reveal brain injuries as well.
Now she wants to apply this diagnostic technology to NFL players and their families: Comparing the brains of athletes who suffered concussions with their genetically similar siblings could yield clues to why some people suffer more symptoms and complications than others.
“We want to ... better understand the role of genetics and environment on outcomes,” said Samadani. She announced her recruitment of football players during a news conference at HCMC Thursday regarding a fundraiser for concussion research at the downtown Minneapolis hospital. The fundraiser, entitled Super Brain 2018, will be held on Jan. 31, 2018, in conjunction with the Super Bowl. It is sponsored by NFL Alumni and the Hennepin Health Foundation.
“Brain injury is unlike any other type of injury, because it can change who you are,” said Ben Utecht, who played football at the University of Minnesota and won a Super Bowl with the Indianapolis Colts before retiring from the sport due to concussions. “Experiencing memory loss reminds me of how important my memories are in defining my identity.” He said additional research could allow doctors to make “cutting edge treatment decisions ... immediately after diagnosis.”
Utecht and other athletes who suffered concussions, such as former Minnesota Twin Corey Koskie, who suffered a concussion in 2006 that curtailed his career, will speak at the fundraiser.
HCMC is already conducting what it has billed as the nation’s largest concussion study, which will screen 9,000 trauma patients and enroll at least 1,000 for testing and follow-up evaluations one year later.
New funding will help researchers branch out into the specific study of professional athletes. The NFL reported 244 concussions among its athletes last season. Earlier this year, 88 percent of retired players registered to receive money from a concussion-related lawsuit settlement with the NFL.
Samadani, whose son plays football at Breck High School, surprised some observers in 2015 when she publicly advocated playing the sport despite its injury risks. “I think, if your child wants to play football, you should let them play,” she said at the time. “It’s a risk/benefit situation, and the risks are far lower than the benefits.”
Samadani said risks appear greater in professional sports, although she intends to study amateur athletes as well. A pathology study in Boston earlier this year found that 110 of 111 brains of deceased NFL players had signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a disease caused by repetitive brain trauma.
“The forces are substantially greater at the NFL level,” said Samadani, because professional athletes are bigger and faster these days.
Utecht commended Samadani and said her research should give others hope for better detection and treatment of brain injuries. He related one of his favorite memories: his father shouting to him as he took the field for the Super Bowl. Having experienced amnesia after concussions, he said, he no longer takes such memories for granted.
“It made me realize how important my mind, my memories, are,” he said, “to the makeup of who I am.”