Omalu Experiment on Long-term Traumatic Brain Injury, 2002

In Laboratory on November 29, 2014 at 11:23 PM

Long-term traumatic brain injury, or chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), was identified by neuropathologist Dr. Bennet Omalu in 2002. The finding resulted from a brain autopsy performed on Mike Webster, a well-known former Steelers football player. According to a recently produced FRONTLINE documentary called “League of Denial,” Dr. Omalu is described as having discovered “the first hard evidence that playing football could cause permanent brain damage.”

Dr. Ann McKee, another neuropathologist, is also prominently featured in the same documentary. Dr. McKee, who like Dr. Omalu has observed CTE present in many autopsies of football players, highlights one especially problematic characteristic of the disorder, namely, a link between long-term traumatic brain injury and the buildup of minor hits – or “subconcussive” hits — which are central to the way football is played in youth and adulthood. This finding is interesting because typically only the more conspicuous high-speed collisions and ram-headed style concussions have captured the public’s attention. Dr. McKee indicates her concern for “Pop Warner,” high-school, college and professional NFL players, explaining that she would not allow her children to play at certain ages. “We have over 70 football players with this disease, from all levels, and we’ve done that in five years.” She says the incidence and prevalence of CTE “have to be a lot higher than people realize.”

Dr. Omalu says, “in active players who have played through high school, college, each and every one of them, in my opinion, has a certain degree of brain damage.”

Many fixes have been proposed in response. Erin Hanson, from my alma mater Georgia State University, has designed a “Guardian Cap” to be used as a protective helmet, which purports to absorb “up to 33 percent of the impact of a hit.” An organization called the Sports Legacy Institute has promoted educational outreach efforts, e.g., endorsing the usage of hit count monitoring and limited full-contact practices. Malcolm Gladwell, the author and writer, has proposed colleges banning football. My proposal is for schools and families to look at how much money they are spending on football relative to other sports and non-athletic disciplines, i.e., ones that might offer reduced likelihoods of brain damage by comparison. In the corporate governance literature, effective “self-challenge” is stressed as indispensable for the long-term success of a firm. The respected British economist John Kay believes it necessary for all organization types. All of these proposals move in that general direction.

The medical profession has come a long way since the Flexner Report was released in 1910. Now that the scientists have spoken, it would benefit everyone to listen and act accordingly, including NFL doctors and “10 percent of mothers in this country.” A few things remain clear, Thanksgiving, “Friday Night Tykes” and the combination of soccer and rugby remain as popular as ever – panem et circenses.

Further subjects of study might be pursued from here: the effects of memory loss on economies and firm leadership; the collective costs of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and CTE on the economy judged as similar by-products from experienced violence; the link between income inequality, wealth disparity and TV coverage driving up the supply of youth football players seeking NFL fame and money alongside a higher likelihood of brain injury; and the connection between obesity, subconcussive impacts and weight-training 16 year olds to become “big monsters” topping 300 pounds.


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