NIH funds in vivo CTE research with $16 million–$0 from NFL; “Concussion” released

CTE research funded–and at a US theater near you Christmas Day

In the run-up to the holidays, our Readers may have missed another gift to those concerned with brain health–the National Institutes of Health (NIH) awarding of a major grant to fund research on chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) to diagnose victims in vivo (while still alive). Awarded by NIH in conjunction with the National Institute of Neurological Disease and Stroke, the $16 million will go to researchers from Boston University, the Cleveland Clinic, Banner Alzheimer’s Institute (Arizona) and Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. Leading the team is Robert Stern MD, Boston University professor and director of clinical research for BU’s Alzheimer’s disease and CTE centers, and a researcher we’ve followed since his June 2013 presentation at NYC’s German Center. According to a report in sports network ESPN’s ‘Outside the Lines’, the National Football League (NFL) refused to fund this research from their long term $30 million grant to the NIH due to Dr Stern’s alleged lack of objectivity; according to ESPN, a NIH official told ‘Outside the Lines’ that “the NFL’s $30 million gift was contingent on the league being able to veto decisions on projects that the money was funding.” Seemingly outside this research is another area of interest to Dr Stern–why some athletes have CTE, and others do not, as discussed in the May 2014 NYC MedTech ‘Brain Games’ presentation attended by this Editor.  Medical-Net (BU release), New York Times

Sports CTE and brain injury is back on the front pages with the release of the film ‘Concussion’, starring Will Smith as foundational researcher Bennet Omalu MD, the then-Pittsburgh forensic pathologist who uncovered CTE after performing a detailed brain examination of Pittsburgh Steelers center Mike Webster, who died of a heart attack aged 50 in 2002. His 2005 case report with others from University of Pittsburgh in Neurosurgery was the kick-off (so to speak) and so enraged the NFL that they attempted to have it withdrawn from the journal. In this interview with Medscape EIC Eric Topol MD, Dr Omalu discusses how he started the research, the NFL’s reaction, the hardships he faced and his POVs on sub-concussive injuries in contact sports and the young, as well as how these injuries could be minimized. We also covered the research he and a team did on in vivo diagnosis of CTE using a tau-sensitive imaging agent published in PNAS earlier this year. Dr Omalu is now co-director of the Brain Injury Research Institute (BIRI) in Pennsylvania and is Chief Medical Examiner of San Joaquin County, California. (US release date Christmas Day; UK release 29 Jan 16)

Similarly in UK, Australia and in the EU, there is research far broader than American football–soccer, rugby and hockey–by researchers such as Inga Koerte, MD of the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München (LMU), in Australia, UK neuropathologist Dr Willie Stewart on rugby players (BBC) and here. (We’ll also mention the major contributions of Ann McKee MD and Bob Cantu, MD, both on the BU team.)

Related reading: Science Underground ‘This is your brain on CTE’ podcast with Dr Stern. Famed NY Giants quarterback and later broadcaster Frank Gifford, who died earlier this year aged 84, also had behavioral signs of CTE in the latter part of his life, which was confirmed upon a family-authorized brain autopsy. Daily Mail  We’ve been covering CTE and related brain injuries since at least 2012. Our CTE-related coverage since late 2012 is indexed here; also our index on TBI gives a broader perspective. Yahoo’s article on Concussion’s director has a few comments by this Editor. The movie itself has created some controversy on its dramatization of Dr Omalu’s work, here examined in Slate; this article also brings up the ‘chicken or egg’ question of mental illness in some of the most prominent CTE victims.


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