Questions about NFL concussions come to a head

Experts are spurring debate about the league's brain trauma research

March 01, 2007|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,Sun reporter

By his count over a 12-year NFL career, former Baltimore Colts safety Bruce Laird endured at least six concussions in which he was unconscious for a half minute or longer.

In addition, there were numerous times - too many to count, he said - when he got off the ground woozy, took an ammonia capsule and went right back on the field.

Today, Laird, 56, has occasional memory lapses and said he has battled depression, two possible symptoms of post-concussion syndrome.

As more NFL players make the news for traumatic brain injuries, the prospect of an uncertain future is not lost on Laird, an undersized but hard-hitting defender with the Colts from 1972 through 1981.

"Absolutely, I have worries," he said. "What really opened my eyes was the situation of [Hall of Fame tight end] John Mackey. John was an articulate, very successful man. Next thing you know, he's like a 7-year-old child in a [64]-year-old body."

Laird is not the only one worried. The NFL's committee on mild traumatic brain injury is battling perception and reality these days. The recent resignation of Dr. Elliot Pellman as chairman did little to quell the debate over the committee's performance.

Experts in brain trauma wonder why the NFL committee's research doesn't match other scientific data. Worse yet, in the aftermath of a critical article in ESPN The Magazine, the perception is that the committee skewed its data to minimize the effect and nature of concussions.

That allegation has been rejected as "totally false" by Dr. Andrew Tucker, a member of the committee since 1994 and a Ravens team physician.

`Industry-funded'

The magazine article, published last fall, said Pellman omitted large numbers of baseline reports from neuropsychological testing in a six-year study to arrive at figures more favorable to the league.

"People on the outside see it as industry-funded research and research that is not as accurate or sound as it should be," said Dr. Kevin Guskiewicz, the research director of the Center for the Study of Retired Athletes at the University of North Carolina, which has been criticized by Pellman's group for some of its work.

"That was basically done to protect the image of the game, of the league. It's troubling to me and many others that there is all this work out on retired NFL players and they have chosen to ignore the findings."

The Center for the Study of Retired Athletes reported that players who have suffered at least three concussions were two to three times more likely to suffer from depression and three times as likely to have mild cognitive impairment, a precursor of Alzheimer's disease.

Michael Kaplen, president of the Brain Injury Association in New York state and an attorney who specializes in the field, calls for doctors outside the NFL to make decisions and to do meaningful research.

"When a drug company sponsors research on a drug, that research is always looked at as being suspect," Kaplen said. "It's no different when the NFL sponsors research on concussions. These people who do this need to be completely independent. ... I wouldn't trust this committee doing anything."

Six of 13 members of the league's concussion committee are not affiliated with an NFL team.

Tucker, director for sports medicine at Union Memorial Hospital, characterized the ESPN article as a personal attack on Pellman and defended the committee's work.

"The most serious charges, the ones we're most upset about, are that we intentionally left out data or `cooked' the data," Tucker said. "That is really upsetting to all of us on the committee. The NFL does not tell us what to publish; we publish what we find."

Tucker said the committee met recently to review its publications, including a series of articles in Neurosurgery.

"We were satisfied with how we went about our work," he said. "That is not to say that people can't disagree with us. That's the nature of medical research."

The concussion committee chronicled brain injuries from 1996 through 2001, collecting injury reports from each team.

The study showed 887 concussions in 650 players, Tucker said. There were 51 who had three or more during the six years.

Furthermore, only six repeat brain injuries occurred within two weeks of the original injury, a statistic Tucker said proves the NFL is not sending players back to the field too quickly. The average recovery time is about a week.

Concern remains

Two recent developments show the concussion issue is not going away, however.

After Andre Waters committed suicide in November, a neuropathologist said the former NFL safety's brain tissue has degenerated into that of an 85-year-old man and the deterioration was caused or expedited by successive concussions.

The claim about the brain tissue later was refuted by the doctor who performed Waters' autopsy.

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