SUMMARY

A partnership between the National Institutes of Health, the Foundation of the National Institutes of Health and the NFL has brought together some of the world’s top research teams to understand head injuries and concussions.

The Best Doctors Trying to Understand the Basics of Head Injuries

“Current tests cannot reliably identify concussions.”

That’s the conclusion of the Foundation of the National Institutes of Health (FNIH)—and it’s the reason the NFL donated $30 million to the Foundation to advance scientific understanding of concussion and head injury in athletes, members of the military and the general population.

The funding comes out of the Sports and Health Research Program, a research partnership between the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the FNIH and the NFL.

The gift was made in 2012 and initial research recipients were announced in 2013.

At the time, Story Landis, Ph.D. and Director of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) said: “This program will help researchers get closer to answering some of the important questions about concussion for our youth who play sports and their parents.”

Research Grantees

One team named to receive a grant is led by Dr. Ann C. McKee of the Boston University School of Medicine and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. They’re working to define the criteria for the stages of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) and to distinguish CTE from disorders such as Alzheimer’s and ALS in postmortem brain tissue.

Another grant went to Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. Led by principal investigator Wayne Gordon, Ph.D., the project set out to “identify and describe the chronic effects of mild, moderate and severe traumatic brain injuries and compare these with the features of chronic traumatic encephalopathy.”

Other pilot-stage research projects receiving grants include:

  • Seattle Children’s Hospital in Seattle, WA

Researchers are using magnetic resonance spectroscopy to monitor gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) levels in adolescents who have sports-related concussions and compare levels to those in adolescents without injuries.

  • Indiana University School of Optometry in Bloomington, IN

Researchers are developing a portable eye-tracking instrument to help diagnose concussions on the sidelines and to monitor injury progression in high school and college athletes.

  • Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, TX

Researchers are looking at the effects of concussions on brain structure and function in adolescents cleared to play and evaluating potential biomarkers for concussions and recovery.

  • Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, OH, and Colorado School of Public Health at University of Colorado in Aurora, CO

Researchers are evaluating mobile app Spot Light’s effectiveness in generating more reports of concussions, more referrals to doctors and better adherence to return-to-play guidelines.

  • Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore, MD

Researchers are investigating the potential of somatosensory system information processing (which processes information such as what an object feels like to touch) as a biomarker for concussion and recovery in youth aged 13 to 17.

  • Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, MA

Researchers are studying post-concussion changes in brain molecules and byproducts to uncover metabolites (a type of molecule) that contribute to serious effects of traumatic brain injuries and identify potential targets for detecting and treating concussions.

Controversy

Earlier this year, the Democratic staff of the Committee on Energy and Commerce in the U.S. House of Representatives published a report titled The National Football League’s Attempt to Influence Funding Decisions at the National Institutes of Health.

It alleged: “As a donor providing funding for objective scientific research to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the National Football League (NFL) acted improperly in attempting to influence the outcome of NIH’s internal process for selecting grantees.”

League spokesman Brian McCarthy responded, in part:

“There is no dispute that there were concerns raised… these concerns were raised for review and consideration through the appropriate channels. Ultimately, the funding decision was made by the FNIH/NIH, not the NFL… It is deeply disappointing that the authors of the Staff Report would make allegations directed at doctors affiliated with the NFL Head, Neck and Spine Committee without ever speaking to them.”

In a letter sent to club owners, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell expressed his support for the Head, Neck and Spine committee and its important work:

“We are fortunate to be guided on these projects by the finest medical and scientific advisors and appreciate their dedication to our ongoing efforts.”

He continued:

“We look forward to a productive and ongoing partnership with the NIH and others to advance our shared priorities.”

All of the research funded by the Sports and Health Research Program continues and the remaining NFL grant funds are available for disbursement.