New Research May Help Save Athletes’ Brains

Oct 09, 2017 | Labs Blog

By Maura Murphy

As we enter week 5 of the National Football League (NFL) season, there is immense controversy over whether players should kneel during the national anthem. What fewer people are talking about, however, is the way the game affects the overall health of these athletes. Last Tuesday, Boston University (BU) published a new study suggesting that they may be close to diagnosing chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) during one’s life. CTE is a degenerative neurological disease caused by repeated blows to the head and currently can only be diagnosed post-mortem. Typical symptoms of CTE include confusion, headaches, memory loss, impaired judgment, and an increased likelihood of depression.  CTE has recently come to light with the death of famous athletes such as Andre Waters, Terry Long, Junior Seau, and Aaron Hernandez.

Researchers have recently been studying the impact of CTE on former football players. One such study looked at 202 test subjects from various levels of play, pre-high school to the NFL, and found CTE in 88% of them. More specifically, 48 of the 53 collegiate athlete’s brains showed CTE while 110 of the 111 NFL brains analyzed showed CTE. While these numbers should be extremely concerning to the NFL, its players, and its fans, the NFL is still thriving.

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Last Tuesday, BU announced that it had discovered a biomarker that could potentially enable researchers to test for CTE in living patients. BU’s study included the brains of 23 college and professional football players, 50 nonathletes with Alzheimer’s disease, and a control group of 18 nonathletes. Researchers found that a biomarker called CCL11 was present at significantly higher levels in the brains of the 23 football players than it was in the brains and cerebrospinal fluid of either the nonathletes with Alzheimer’s or the control group. Researchers then compared the CCL11 levels and the number of years the individual played football and found there to be a positive correlation between the two. This correlation seemed to be independent of age, suggesting that someone who receives more blows to the head will develop higher levels of CCL11 than someone who does not. While researchers have acknowledged that these results are only preliminary, they are confident that they will have the ability to test for CTE in live subjects in the future.

Thankfully, the conversation regarding football-related head injuries has become more prominent in the NFL due in large part to the recent concussion litigation that resulted in a $1 billion settlement favoring former NFL players and their families. However, there is still a long road ahead. The NFL must not only acknowledge, but also address the debilitating affects CTE is having on its football players. This is unlikely to happen though until the scientific community can definitively show that CTE is caused by football-related head injuries and that it can reliably diagnose CTE in living persons. Once this becomes a reality, the NFL and universities across the nation will have no choice but to confront this legal and ethical dilemma head-on. Universities will likely have to provide yearly CTE testing for their student athletes. This will help to reduce their liability by prohibiting student-athletes who show symptoms of CTE from suiting up. It will not be long before the NFL is directly affected. For example, there will be fewer college athletes to draft every year and the star athletes who are responsible for generating revenue may choose to leave the sport for their own well-being.

The NFL will likely continue to generate billions of dollars while silently contributing to the development of this neurodegenerative disease in its players. Hopefully BU’s announcement regarding the possibility of testing for CTE during the lives of athletes will be enough to pressure the NFL and universities to change the way in which they conduct business, that is putting the safety of their athletes before profit. Additionally, perhaps if fans can become as impassioned about the safety of the players as they are about kneeling during the national anthem, there may be hope for a significant change in the NFL.


Maura is currently in her second year at the S.J. Quinney College of Law. She graduated from The George Washington University in 2016 with a B.A. in Speech and Hearing Sciences. While studying at George Washington, Maura was also a Division I softball student-athlete. She is interested in business and health law, and plans to pursue a career in the compliance realm. Maura is also involved with multiple organizations at the law school including Student Bar Association 2L representative, board member of the Health Law Club, and co-president of the Sports Law Club.