Study finds evidence of brain injury in living NFL veterans

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Evidence Of Brain Injury Discovered In Living NFL Veterans

(Reuters) - More than 40 percent of retired NFL players tested with advanced scanning technology showed signs of traumatic brain injury, a much higher rate than in the general population, according to a new study of the long-term risks of playing American football.

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The research, presented at an American Academy of Neurology meeting that began in Vancouver on Monday, is one of the first to provide "objective evidence" of traumatic brain injury in a large sample of National Football League veterans while they are living, said Dr. Francis X. Conidi, one of the study's authors.

Conidi, a neurologist at the Florida Center for Headache and Sports Neurology and a faculty member at the Florida State University College of Medicine, said traumatic brain injury was often a "precursor" to CTE, a degenerative brain disease.

"What we do know is that players with traumatic brain injury have a high incidence of going on to develop neurological degenerative disease later on in life," Conidi told Reuters.

CTE, or chronic traumatic encephalopathy, has been found in dozens of the NFL's top players after they died. At present, a CTE diagnosis is only possible after death.

The brain tissue of 59 or 62 deceased former NFL players examined by Boston University's CTE Center have tested positive for CTE, according to its website. The disease, which can lead to aggression and dementia, may have led to the suicides of several NFL athletes, including Hall of Famer Junior Seau.

In the new study, the largest of its kind, 40 living former players were given sensitive brain scans, known as diffusion tensor imaging (DTI), as well as thinking and memory tests.

"No one has ever looked at this number of (living) players before," Conidi said.

The DTI scans, which measure water flow between parts of the brain, revealed damage in 17 of the men, or 43 percent. That percentage was about three times higher than among the general population, Conidi said. Traditional MRI scans showed signs of damage in 12 ex-players, or 30 percent.

The longer a player was in the league, the greater the likelihood the advanced scan would reveal signs of brain damage, the neurologist said, a correlation that did not show up with traditional scans. With both types of scanning, there was no relationship between the number of diagnosed concussions suffered by a player and signs of brain damage.

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That finding suggests the constant banging that players experience during games and practices, especially those playing offensive and defensive line positions, puts them more at risk than the big hits that cause concussions, Conidi told Reuters.

One way of reducing the danger is by eliminating tackling during practices, Conidi said, a step that some Ivy League football programs have already taken.

Conidi said his study was "one piece of the puzzle" in understanding the link between brain damage and football, the most popular American sport and one that generates billions of dollars in revenue for its players, coaches and owners.

The issue has become the subject of a national conversation in recent years, thanks in part to the 2015 movie "Concussion," starring Will Smith. The film tells the true story of Dr. Bennet Omalu, a Nigerian pathologist who challenged the NFL with his research into CTE suffered by players.

After Omalu published his research, some 5,000 former players sued the NFL over brain injuries, claiming the league concealed the dangers of repeated head trauma. The players agreed to a settlement that could cost the NFL $1 billion, but the deal remains tied up in the courts.

Prominent former NFL players with CTE:

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Prominent cases of NFL players with CTE
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Study finds evidence of brain injury in living NFL veterans
FILE - In this Dec. 10, 1979, file photo, Oakland Raiders quarterback Ken Stabler listens carefully as his coach Tom Flores discusses the situation in the last minutes of an NFL football game against the Cleveland Browns in Oakland, Calif. Stabler, the late NFL MVP and Super Bowl winner who is a finalist for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, has been diagnosed with the brain disease CTE, Boston University researchers say. (AP Photo/Robert H. Houston, File)
FILE - In this Jan. 12, 2012, file photo, New York Giants defensive back Tyler Sash (39) runs with the ball during NFL football practice, in East Rutherford, N.J. A member of the Giantsâ 2012 Super Bowl championship team who died at age 27, safety Sash, was diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). The disease is linked to repeated brain trauma and associated with symptoms such as memory loss, depression and progressive dementia. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez, File)
FILE - In this Nov. 22, 1960, file photo, New York Giants football player Frank Gifford lies in a bed holding an ice pack on his head at St. Elizabeth's Hospital in New York. Gifford sustained a consussion in a game on Nov. 20, 1960. The family of Pro Football Hall of Famer Frank Gifford says signs of the degenerative disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy were found in his brain after his death. In a statement released through NBC News on Wednesday, Nov. 25, 2015, the family says Gifford suffered from unspecified âcognitive and behavioral symptomsâ in his later years. He died suddenly of natural causes at his Connecticut home in August at age 84. (AP Photo/File)
FILE - In this Jan. 10, 2010, file photo, New England Patriots linebacker Junior Seau (55) warms up on the field before an NFL wild-card playoff football game in Foxborough, Mass. Star linebacker Junior Seau had a degenerative brain disease when he committed suicide last May, the National Institutes of Health told The Associated Press on Thursday Jan. 10, 2013. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa, File)
PITTSBURGH, PA - CIRCA 1987: Mike Webster #52 of Pittsburgh Steelers looks on during a game circa 1987 at Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Webster played for the Steelers from 1974-88. (Photo by George Gojkovich/Sporting News via Getty Images)
MIAMI, FL - NOVEMBER 19: Quarterback Earl Morrall #15 of the Miami Dolphins looks on from the sidelines against the New York Jets during an NFL football game at The Orange Bowl November 19, 1972 in Miami, Florida. Morrall played for the Dolphins from 1972-76. (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)
Ralph Wenzel, Pittsburgh Steelers National Football League Full Back #62, Sept 1970. (AP Photo)
FILE - In this Sept. 18, 2007 file photo, former Chicago Bears safety Dave Duerson, a trustee for the Burt Bell/Pete Rozell NFL Player Retirement Plan, testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington. The family of the late NFL safety plans to appeal terms of a class-action concussion settlement that was announced Wednesday, April 22, 2015, "sooner rather than later." (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)
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