NFL awards more than $35 million to multiple schools, including UNC, to examine brain injuries in former NFL players

The debate over CTE and football

CHAPEL HILL, NC (WBTV) - The NFL has awarded more than $35 million to five organizations, including UNC, to conduct research into diagnosis and treatment of brain injuries.

The NFL is awarding grants to investigative teams focusing on concussions and related conditions, including chronic traumatic encephalopathy, more commonly referred to as CTE.

According to the Associated Press, the funding will be distributed to five different honoree groups including:

  • Boston Children’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School, led by Dr. William P. Meehan III, $14.7 million to “A Prospective, LONGitudinal and Translational Study for Former National Football League Players.”
  • The University of Pittsburgh and University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, $6 million to its “Prevalence of Brain Health versus Neurodegeneration in Professional Football Retirees” work.
  • The University of Calgary, led by Dr. Carolyn Emery, $9.4 million to “Surveillance in High Schools to Reduce Concussions in Youth.”
  • The University of California-San Francisco, led by Dr. Geoff Manley, $3.4 million to “Transforming Research and Clinical Knowledge in Traumatic Brain Injury (TRACK-TBI Longitudinal).”
  • The Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital and Harvard Medical School, led by Dr. Grant Iverson, $1.6 million to “The Spectrum of Concussion: Predictors of Clinical Recovery, Treatment and Rehabilitation, and Possible Long-Term Effects.”

The five honorees will present evidence of making headway to the Scientific Advisory Board in about one year.

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is part of the multi-institution team who have received the $14.7 million grant. UNC will receive $4.7 million from the grant.

The team’s study, “A Prospective, LONGitudinal and Translational Study for Former National Football League Players,” is led by Boston Children’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School, William P. Meehan III, MD and is joined by Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the Medical College of Wisconsin and University Orthopedic Center – State College, PA.

According to UNC, it will be the largest cohort of former NFL players ever studied.

In 2016, the Carolina Panthers had placed six players in the league’s concussion protocol from the start of the season through Nov. 19, 2016. That was more than any other team at that point, according to ESPN Stats & Info.

The list included quarterback Cam Newton and middle linebacker Luke Kuechly, whose post-concussion meltdown played out in a Thursday night game in front of more than 13 million television viewers.

The image of Kuechly’s concussion was of him sobbing and hyperventilating as he was carted out of Bank of America Stadium.

He was then held out for three more games because of the coaching and medical staff’s concern for his long-term health, in light of continued research that has been published linking NFL players with CTE.

At that point in the 2016 season, the Carolina Panthers had become the pained face of the NFL’s concussion problem.

In 2017, Kuechly was the first NFL player to wear a Q Collar, a device aimed to protect the brain from damage.

RELATED: Hard-to-see experimental device Luke Kuechly wears on field might save his brain

Members of the medical and sports communities have had a growing concern that repetitive concussions may lead to chronic neurologic health problems later in life.

CTE, a condition defined as abnormal tau proteins in the brain, has been reported in studies of former NFL football players after they died.

According to UNC, Thursday’s grant extends the work of UNC’s Center for the Study of Retired Athletes, directed by Kevin Guskiewicz, dean of the College of Arts & Sciences and Kenan distinguished professor of exercise and sport science.

The study will track up to 2,500 former NFL players with annual follow-up health assessments.

“We’re excited about working with our institutional research partners and our interdisciplinary team at UNC-Chapel Hill,” which includes the College, the UNC School of Medicine and the Gillings School of Global Public Health, Guskiewicz said. “This award will allow us to leverage a rich data set compiled shortly after these players retired. We will have the ability to track disease progression 20 years later.”

The project will conduct preclinical laboratory studies to investigate several potential therapies for preventing neurologic health problems, including CTE, after injury and for slowing their progression. It will identify through sophisticated neuroimaging those former NFL players who may be developing neurodegenerative diseases such as CTE. The most effective therapies will then be translated into clinical intervention studies for former football players identified as being at risk.
UNC website

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