The National Football League is encouraging all of its current and retired players to participate in brain research at Boston University, after admitting for the first time this weekend that repeated blows to the head can result in long-term damage.
The league has also committed to giving $1 million to the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy at the BU School of Medicine, whose researchers have been critical of the NFL's stance on concussions.
"It's big news within this topic," said Dr. Bob Stern, the center's co-director, in an interview with WBUR's Bob Oakes. "Finally they are saying: There is a link and let's do something about it."
Despite the fact that retired players suffer from unusually high rates of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, the NFL had long denied that concussions cause lasting brain injuries.
Stern noted that the recent announcement also comes on the heels of two significant rule changes: First, an independent specialist — not a team or NFL representative — is now responsible for determining if a player has suffered a concussion and if that player is cleared to return to play. Second, any player who exhibits relevant symptoms now cannot return to practice or a game that same day.
Stern's research primarily focuses on the longer-term effects of constant, but relatively innocuous, head contact. Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, or CTE, Stern said, is a unique disease that causes memory loss, depression and impulse-control deficiency in the shorter-term, and later worsens into "full-blown dementia."
While the ongoing CTE study already includes some 50 to 60 professional football players, Stern said the NFL's support should encourage test subjects and facilitate the study of risk factors.
But while he does advocate some immediate changes to make the game safer, he is also realistic in his expectations. "I hope it does change," Stern concluded, "but I hope it doesn't change so dramatically that the game is a completely different game."
Click “Listen Now” to hear the interview with Dr. Bob Stern on Morning Edition.
This program aired on December 22, 2009.