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NFL Denies Pulling Funds From BU Study Of Degenerative Brain Disease02:39Download

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The National Football League is denying that it withdrew funding from a Boston University study of a degenerative brain disease known to affect some NFL players.

The National Institutes of Health announced Tuesday it was awarding $16 million to BU, Brigham and Women's Hospital, the Cleveland Clinic and Banner Alzheimer's Institute in Phoenix to research the disease known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE.

Chris Nowinski, co-founder of BU's CTE Center, said when the NIH requested applications from researchers for the funds, it was believed that the research would be paid for by a $30 million donation the NFL had made to the NIH.

"The grant that is now being directly funded by the National Institutes of Health, and led by Boston University, was originally written as part of an [request for proposals] for a study that would be funded by the $30 million from the NFL," Nowinski said. "That's what it stated."

The NIH said "any questions about the donation from the NFL should be directed to the NFL." The league said it "did not pull funding from the BU study." It said "the NIH makes all funding decisions" and "the NFL has no 'veto power' as part of its unrestricted $30 million grant to NIH."

Nowinski said BU won the grant months ago, but the funding for the study did not appear.

"And now it's being funded by the NIH directly, so read between the lines, but it appears that the NFL exercised their veto power and are not funding the best grant that's going to help us understand how to diagnose CTE," Nowinski said.

The goal of the research is to find a way to diagnose CTE in living NFL players and college athletes. Currently it's only possible to diagnose the disease in an autopsy.

"It's a degenerative brain disorder that's characterized by changes in behavior, in mood, in cognition, and sometimes it includes what looks like a dementia, but we think it's a different kind of dementia," said Martha Shenton, of Brigham and Women's, one of the principal investigators.

Post-mortem studies performed at BU have found an abnormal brain protein called tau in players with CTE.

"CTE itself has been found in boxers, football players and those who have been subjected to repetitive blows to the head," Shenton explained.

BU and the other institutions are still getting the full $2.3 million for the first year of the study, but directly from the NIH.

This segment aired on December 22, 2015.

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Fred Thys Twitter Reporter
Fred Thys reports on politics and higher education for WBUR.

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