Research: 40 Percent of Former NFL Players Have Brain Damage

By Briana Vannozzi

Former NFL lineman Bart Oates recalls his days on the gridiron. In both practices and games, he took hundreds of blows to the head.

“If you’re a football player, you’re going to stay on the field unless someone takes you off,” he said.

And that credo’s the likely cause behind the latest research published on traumatic brain injury in the NFL. It shows 40 percent of former players had some form of brain damage.

“We looked at 40 retired NFL players for signs of traumatic brain injury and we found approximately 43 percent had what we called  objective evidence or evidence on advanced neuroimaging of traumatic brain injury,” said Dr. Frank Conidi, director of the Florida Center for Headache and Sports Neurology.

Dr. Conidi led the study, which presents the strongest link to date between brain injury and football.

“Most of the things that you see on ESPN or other networks involved looking for CTE, which can only be diagnosed at autopsy. So this is one of the largest studies in living players,” he said.

All of the participants played in the league for at least seven years. Fifty percent showed serious issues with executive function, like problem solving and attention. Forty-five percent had trouble with memory and learning. The damage was evident in the brain’s white matter — that’s where nerves connect.

“So if you picture a light fixture light bulb is doing the work that would be the gray matter and the white matter is the connector or plug that goes from the light bulb to the outlet. If that plug is damaged by being pulled at over and over again, the light will no longer work,” explained Dr. Nancy Chiaravalloti, director of neuroscience and TBI research at the Kessler Foundation and director of the Northern NJ TBI Model System.

The study also suggested that the longer a player spent in the NFL, the more likely he was to show signs of a TBI.

“We’re learning that sub concussive impacts have a cumulative effect over time and what’s happening is the body is being thrown, the brain is being jolted and the brain is sustaining an impact that we’re not documenting at the time,” Dr. Chiaravalloti said.

The players involved in the study already had post concussive symptoms. They weren’t random picks. And other athletes analyzed with similar blows to the head — like Oates — have showed no signs of TBI.

“I had a son who played in high school and by the time after his fourth concussion we shut him down. For some reason he had a propensity for concussions. For some reason I didn’t,” Oates said.

“That’s one of the main questions in traumatic brain injury research overall is you can see two people who have the identical injury but their outcome is vastly different. So we’re really working to identify what those factors are,” Dr. Chiaravalloti said.

For every piece of data uncovered, doctors say it leaves more questions to be answered. But both NFL players and neurology experts condone limiting contact in the sport — especially for youth — until more is known.