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Research & Innovation | Overview

Neurological outcomes in former NFL players and implications for young athletes

Concern has been growing in medical, football, and other sports communities that repeated concussions may lead to chronic neurologic health problems such as chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) later in life. Yet, there is a pressing need for data to help better understand the risk, incidence, progression, and treatment of repeated head trauma.

The NFL has awarded Boston Children’s Hospital a $14.7 million grant to conduct neurological health assessments of up to 2,500 former NFL players. The goal is to better understand long-term neurologic health consequences of concussions and sub-concussive injuries. The research team will be led by William Meehan, MD, of Boston Children’s Orthopedics and Sports Medicine Center, in collaboration with Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the Medical College of Wisconsin, and University Orthopedic Center in State College, Pa.

The five-year study aims to determine the long-term neurological impact of concussions and repeated brain trauma. Combined with results of a survey conducted in 2001, the project will give a prospective view of health outcomes over a 20-year span. Researchers will also test four potential therapies for the neurological effects of repeated brain trauma. The study is part of a continued effort to improve player safety and quality of life for athletes of all ages, whether the athlete is a national-level player or high school athlete.

The study investigators are currently recruiting former NFL players to participate in this study.

Concussion recovery

After a concussion, athletes are typically told to avoid physical and mental activity until all of their symptoms go away. In several published articles, researchers in the Sports Concussion Clinic at Boston Children’s Hospital have shown there is little value in complete mental and physical rest following a concussion. Based on a series of studies of athletes with concussions, they found that mild or moderate mental activities appeared to have little impact on the time of recovery. High levels of mental activity did appear to delay recovery.

Similarly, patients who exercised after a concussion improved faster than the ones who stopped all physical activity. This was particularly true for adolescent athletes between the ages 14 and 18. That research — along with studies from other groups — led directly to the change in concussion recovery recommendations now practiced around the country.