Football and head injuriesUnder the crushing weight of many new studies finding even small head injuries can cause massive damage, the National Football League (NFL) has launched a new $60 million brain initiative. The initiative is co-sponsored by General Electric (GE).

It comes on the heels of a surprising rush of new head injury investigations: over 100 published since the start of 2013 alone, according to Pubmed. The most recent study, a PLOS One look at 67 football players, found that the more head bangs players experience, the higher their levels of a protein involved in auto-immunity—without concussion even occurring.1

Head damage can disrupt the blood-brain immune barrier, prompting the leak of astrocytic protein S100B into the blood. This can lead to autoimmune disease, where patients’ own immune cells turn on them. Four players in the study displayed signs of autoimmunity after one season.

In addition, a panel of global experts has reached a consensus on helmets and mouth guards: they protect players’ teeth and faces, but not their brains.2 The statement is being released in the upcoming April issue of the British Journal of Sports Medicine, in which more than 13 articles and well over 50 abstracts are devoted to sports-related concussion.

And New York University researchers just reported in Radiology that patients with post-trauma symptoms after a single concussion have “measurable global and regional brain atrophy.”3 Such patients can experience long-term memory lapses, among other serious problems.

Neuralstem is using human neural stem cells to combat many nervous system disorders in the clinic. “It’s becoming clear,” says Neuralstem CEO Richard Garr, “that even chronic sub-concussional injuries can result in permanent damage. We all focus a lot on the more dramatic “concussions,” but the chronic lesser exposures of many football or soccer players can cause the same level of damage over time. This is especially dangerous when compounded with actual concussion-level trauma.”

The NFL and GE will spend $40 million on brain imaging technologies. Another $20 million will be available to universities and businesses investigating the prevention and treatment of brain injury. One goal is to target genetic markers that will single out players at high risk of head injury. The ultimate goal is to develop better risk models, and better concussion prevention, treatment, and management approaches.

Some 4,000 former NFL players, including Chicago Bears defensive back Shaun Gayle, have filed a class-action lawsuit against the NFL for allegedly concealing information about life-altering brain injuries caused by football. There have also been high-profile suicides among former NFL players with brain injuries.

In the meantime, the first bill in the US to ban tackle football for children under 11 has been introduced in the New York State Legislature. The legislation was drafted by State Assemblyman Michael Benedetto (Bronx).

It has met with some resistance.

“What we need to ban is knee-jerk legislation,” said New York State Senator Thomas O’Mara.

The legislature is unlikely to address the bill until budget deliberations are over, says a state official.



1. Marchi, N., et al., “Consequences of Repeated Blood-Brain Barrier Disruption in Football Players,” PLOS ONE, Published Online March 6, 2013.

2. McCrory P., et al., “Consensus statement on concussion in sport: the 4th International Conference on Concussion in Sport held in Zurich,” British Journal of Sports Medicine, Vol 47, Iss 5, March 2013: p 250-258.

3. Zhou, Y., et al., “Mild Traumatic Brain Injury: Longitudinal Regional Brain Volume Changes,” Radiology, Published Online March 12, 2013.