New Study Shows High Rate of Brain Injury Among Retired NFL-Players

A new study, set to be presented at a meeting of the American Academy of Neurology (AAN), shows more than 40 percent of retired NFL players had signs of traumatic brain injury based on sensitive MRI scans (called diffusion tensor imaging), according to a recent Washington Post article. The study involved taking the brain scans of 40 retired NFL players while giving them concentration and memory tests, with the participants having had an average career length of seven years, an average of 8.1 reported concussions, and most being less than five years retired. According to an AAN press release, 43 percent of players tested had evidence of traumatic brain injury, 30 percent showed evidence of injury to the brain on traditional MRI, while on thinking skills tests about 50 percent had significant problems on executive function, 45 percent on learning or memory, 42 percent on attention and concentration, and 24 percent on spatial and perceptual function.

The 43 percent of players showing evidence of traumatic brain injury was about three times higher than among the general population. Additionally, the study also found that the longer a player was in the league, the greater the likelihood that the advanced scan would reveal signs of brain damage. The importance of these findings is underscored by the fact that according to Dr. Francis Conidi, a neurologist at the Florida Center for Headache and Sports Neurology, traumatic brain injury is often a precursor to chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), diagnosis of which is only possible after death. CTE has been found in dozens of the NFL’s top players after their death.

This study is not the first to show a correlation between brain injury and playing in the NFL. In 2015, a study of the brains of deceased former NFL players showed that 96 percent had signs of CTE. However, that study came with the caveat that those likely to donate their brains to be posthumously examined for CTE were also probably those who had reason to suspect they had the disease. This new study, however, is one of the largest to date to look at living retired NFL players.

The potential connection between the NFL and CTE has massive legal implications for the league, as it already has reached a potential $1 billion settlement in order to resolve thousands of NFL concussion lawsuits last year. About 200 of the NFL retirees or their families rejected that settlement, and intent to sue the league individually. If studies like this one continue to show further proof of the direct connection between playing in the NFL and suffering from traumatic brain injury and CTE, these pending suits and future ones could become increasingly costly for the league.

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