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NFL Gives $1M to BU Center for Athlete Brain Study

Will support research linking repetitive trauma to dementia

| From BU Today | By Rich Barlow

Robert Cantu, one of the codirectors of BU’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, which is studying athletic brain trauma, says an NFL grant will expedite the center’s studies.

In its first gift to a brain research center, the National Football League will donate $1 million to the University’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy (CSTE).

“This is a substantial increase from what the center has been operating under,” says Robert Cantu, a clinical professor of neurosurgery at the School of Medicine and a center codirector. Cantu says the CSTE has been running on grants of about $500,000 from Alzheimer’s disease research advocates and from the national committee that sets safety standards for sports equipment.

Cantu met in Boston last fall with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell to discuss the center’s work, but, Cantu says, there was no discussion of a donation at that time.

“We obviously are very interested in the center’s research on the long-term effects of head trauma in athletes,” says Goodell. “It is our hope that this research will lead to a better understanding of these effects and also to developing ways to help detect, prevent, and treat these injuries.”

Launched in 2008 as a joint venture between MED and the Sports Legacy Institute, a nonprofit founded by Cantu and codirector Christopher Nowinski (below), the CSTE maintains a bank at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center, in Bedford, Mass., with the donated brains of deceased athletes — football, basketball, soccer, hockey. Center researchers studying the organs have found evidence that repeated blows to the head can cause chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative disease that has been tied to later-life cognitive and behavior disorders and eventually results in dementia.

The NFL’s unrestricted gift will enable the CTSE to “increase the intensity and scope of the research,” says Cantu, who has written guidelines on athletes’ returning to play after a concussion.

Christopher Nowinski wrestled for WWE for two years before retiring with postconcussion syndrome. Today, Nowinski is codirector of BU’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, which is studying the brains of deceased athletes for signs of the degenerative disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). Photo courtesy of Christopher Nowinski.

The gift comes two years after an NFL survey of retired players found that they reported a higher incidence of Alzheimer’s, dementia, or memory-related illness than the broader American male population. At the time, the league described the survey as inconclusive.

Asked if league officials’ thinking has evolved, NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy says the league has “embraced research, embraced technology when it comes to the safety of our players. We always believe in getting better. We’re encouraging players to work with Dr. Cantu and all of the folks at Boston University.”

Nowinski, a former defensive lineman at Harvard and a former WWE wrestler, says the league’s gift “demonstrates that they sincerely want to address the issue and be part of the solution.” Concussions and head blows from his athletic days, he says, have saddled him with headaches, memory problems, and depression.

Cantu says the CSTE has applied for grant money from the National Institutes of Health.

Unlike the money from the NFL, which is for current research, Cantu says, an NIH grant would make possible a new, prospective study of retired players, who would be studied over many years with neurological exams and other tools. The goal would be to discover markers that would allow athletes to be diagnosed with cognitive impairment while they’re still alive. Currently, the diagnosis is possible only postmortem.

Read more BU Today stories about BU’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy here:
NFL, U.S. Soccer Athletes Donate Brains to BU
Football Brains
New Evidence Links Head Trauma, Brain Disease in Football Players
BU Brain Researchers Grapple with NFL Offer

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