Is Football Bad for Your Brain?

Nov 12, 2015

At the beginning of his high school football season Blake Ripple’s football coach read aloud a sticker that said the helmets the teenage players would wear would not prevent head injury, only head fracture. 

That was the only warning about the dangerous potential of one of the world’s most violent contact sports, and one of America’s favorite past times Ripple would receive. He went on to play the beginning of his season during which he received multiple sub-concussive hits or very small impacts to the brain. By the end of the season he was experiencing much harder concussions. Then in the fall of 2009 he suffered a massive head on concussion. He couldn’t walk, couldn’t open his eyes. A neurologist told him the problems were the result of his head injury. Now Ripple has constant headaches, nausea, vomiting, and has to take round-the-clock medication. 

“I'd decided to stop playing football, that I had suffered too many issues. And I thought that college football probably kill me,” Ripple said. 

Ripple is one of many football players to experience serious health problems related to injuries sustained while playing football. Researchers are beginning to concur that the type of continuous head trauma sustained by football players is linked to neurodegenerative diseases. One of these is Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, or CTE. Previously seen in boxers and once known as “punch-drunk syndrome,” CTE was thrust again into the public consciousness when forensic pathologist Bennet Omalu uncovered CTE during an autopsy of former Pittsburgh Steeler Mike Webster.

In her new book, “Concussion,” Jeanne Marie Laskas chronicles Omalu’s efforts to bring his findings to the NFL.

“One of the things I'm trying to do in this book is to sort of invite America to have this conversation we keep almost having but not having,’” Laskas says. 

The NFL has long been confronted with what the Wall Street Journal has called the “silent epidemic” of brain injury in sports. After three NFL players were knocked out cold by concussions in 1994, the NFL put together a committee called the Mild Traumatic Brain Injury Committee to study the health effects of head injuries on football athletes. It wasn’t until Bennet Omalu came along, however that an unpaid scientist began seriously studying the disease.

“What I'm trying to tell in this book is the story of someone who enters this conversation not as a paid scientist, and not as an unpaid scientist, who's crying out about the dangers of concussions. A guy named Bennett Omalu who's a neuropathologist from Nigeria enters the scene knowing nothing about football, nothing about the N.F.L. No axe to grind whatsoever,” Laskas says. 

Omalu was given the task of doing an autopsy on former NFL player Mike Webster’s body. Webster had died of a heart attack. And what Omalu found when he examined Webster’s body were conclusive signs of a neurodegenerative disease — dementia pugilistic — a disease normally associated with boxers who receive multiple head injuries. Omalu brought slides of Webster's brain to fellow neuroscientist Ron Hamilton, an Associate Professor of Pathology at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.

“I looked at them very, very carefully and first thing I said to myself, ‘Well it's clearly not Alzheimers disease.’ And then I look for all the other different kinds of diseases that cause dementia and the only one that was left on the list, and it fit perfectly, was dementia pugilistica,” Hamilton says. When Bennet told Hamilton the slides were from a football player, and that a case like that had never been published before, Hamilton realized they were on to something very big. “That's when I nearly fell out of my chair. That's when I knew that this was going to be really important case and that it wasn't going to be the first one. And so Bennet got me to agree with him without even telling me what he wanted me to agree with.”

Now, says Hamilton “the vast majority of the scientific community especially neuropathologists see this as a very important, completely preventable kind of condition.” 

Robert Stern, who is a professor of neurology, neurosurgery, anatomy and neurobiology at Boston University School of Medicine explains more about Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, or CTE. 

“The scientific field is pretty together that this disease is kind of a sister disease to Alzheimer’s disease but it's a unique disease,” Stern says, “Our hope is that within the next five to ten years we'll have a very good accurate diagnosis for the disease during life.”

Still, the study of CTE is in its infancy. 

“I think that the media coverage and media hype about this whole issue leads people to think that we know more about it than we do. But I don't think that leads to the science being skewed,” Stern says, “There may be some folks out there who have played football or other sports and hit their heads a bunch. And they are so afraid that they're going to get this disease or they have it or they're going to have this or that symptom. And the reality is that not everyone who hits their head a bunch is going to get this brain disease. We know at this point that having that kind of exposure is a necessary variable to get this disease but it's not sufficient. Not everyone who hits their head is going to get it. So we have to figure out why one person gets it and another person doesn’t.”

This article is based on an interview that aired on PRI's Science Friday with Ira Flatow.