NFL Gives $300K Grant To Medical College For Concussion Research

hand colored MRI brain scan images
Hand-colored MRI images from a brain scan. Photo: Julie Falk (CC-BY-NC)

The Super Bowl is Sunday. The Green Bay Packers won’t be there, but some of the rising stars in pro football are scientists in Wisconsin, who are helping the NFL determine when athletes have recovered from concussions.

The league just gave the Medical College of Wisconsin $300,000 to expand research that doctors hope will eventually lead to MRI technology that will allow them to see a healthy brain — by taking a picture.

Terry Bell spoke with Dr. Michael McCrea of the Medical College of Wisconsin, one of the leading neurosurgeons in America.

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Terry Bell: I understand this $300,000 from the NFL is allowing you to expand on research that you’re already doing, not only for the NFL, but for the United States military.

Michael McCrea: That’s correct. We have a large, ongoing study here at the Medical College. That study is really focused on assessing the time course of clinical recovery, which is really an indirect measure of brain function. This newest grant from the General Electric-NFL Head Health Challenge will allow us to add advanced brain neuroimaging, or MRI scanning, that will allow us to actually study and visualize changes in brain structure and function that occur after concussion, and determine when brain structure and function return to normal in athletes.

TB: In other words, this will help (doctors) determine when it’s safe for an athlete or a soldier to go back to work.

MM: That’s correct. The current state of things is that we rely on athletes or soldiers or individual patients to tell us when their symptoms have fully resolved, and we administer conventional tests of memory in balance and other functional abilities to determine when their performance normalizes. Those are very handy and useful clinical tools, but they’re considered surrogate measures, or indirect indicators of brain health. What we’re embarking on in the next frontier here, is to develop more objective and direct measures of brain recovery, that would be the ultimate indicator as to readiness to return to active duty, or your local football game, for instance.

TB: So, instead of determining when symptoms seem to have gone away, you can, with this MRI technology, look at a picture of a healthy brain, and let [the patient] know when they’re okay again.

MM: That’s right.

TB: Now, this is important for everyone who might be at risk for a concussion, but especially young athletes. I understand the brain is still developing until the age of 25 or so, right?

MM: Correct. Well through our college years, not only is the young brain still developing, but athletes who participate in contact and collision sports, as you know, are highly motivated to return to competition…

TB: “Put me back in, coach!”

MM: Absolutely. And put me back in as fast as you can. We don’t disregard the motivation of the athlete, but we believe there are additional lines of research that can provide athletes, their parents, and everybody involved, with with greater reassurance as to when they’re safe to return to competition.