AAPL member Bennett Omalu likens the disease to cancer and expresses concern about youths exposed to football. Recent brain research supports Omalu's pioneering discovery.
Bennett Omalu, MD, MPH, MBA, CPE, whose discovery of chronic traumatic encephalopathy was profiled in the 2015 film Concussion, says “traumatic brain injury has become one of the medical challenges of 21st century, just like cancer.”
His comments, in a video interview last year, came as researchers were investigating the brains of more than 200 former football players. That study’s results, announced last month, further supported Omalu’s pioneering work, which linked the degenerative condition to the popular sport.
“Knowing what we know today,” Omalu says, “if you bring men to place helmets on their heads and ask them to bump into one another for the sake of a game, you are sacrificing the intellectual capacity of men for some transient emotional excitement.”
In the recent study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, researchers used brains donated to a Boston University program. The “convenience sample” came from people who played football in various levels, from pre-high school to professional. Researchers say it was the largest and most methodologically rigorous study of its kind.
The results: CTE was neuropathologically diagnosed in 177 (87 percent) of the brains all levels of play, including 110 of 111 former NFL players.
“It is a problem of football, it’s a problem at all levels from high school and above,” says Ann McKee, MD, director of Boston University's CTE Center and co-author of the study.
“Traumatic brain injury has become a major part of the 21st century way of life. It is one of the challenges of century, just like cancer,” says Omalu, whose discovery of CTE was profiled in the 2015 film Concussion. | AAPL
McKee says researchers found the most advanced stages of CTE in the higher levels of players - those who participated in both NFL and college.
“This is something that needs to be addressed, something that we need to figure out what’s happening in football so we can identify this legion when it is first starting,” she says, “and try to either prevent it from getting worse or try to treat it and keep it at this mild stage.”
The investigation followed up on the groundbreaking discovery by Omalu, who is responsible for starting the current level of awareness of CTE in National Football League players and other sports at all levels. The disease can only be diagnosed posthumously.
Omalu, a member of the American Association for Physician Leadership, is especially concerned about children and teens who participate in football.
“We should stop deceiving ourselves by confirmationally intelligence that exposing our children to repeated blows to the head is good for them, what you are inferring … is there is a blow to the head that is safe,” he told the American Association of Physician Leadership during an interview after the film’s release.
Although the current study focused on football players from the Boston University’s brain bank, Omalu’s research pointed to CTE in participants in other physical activities, such as boxing, hockey martial arts, rugby, wrestling - and even military veterans.
“This has never been about football,” says Omalu, who graduated from AAPL’s Certified Physician Executive program in 2015. “This is rather more about any human activity that exposes you to single traumatic brain injury, episodic traumatic brain injury or repetitive traumatic brain injury.”
Omalu talked about examining the brains of two deceased military veterans.
“They too are exposed to repeated subconcussive blows from ordinances,” he says. “They had CTE. One committed suicide, one died from drug overdose.”
A next step? “I think we should begin to establish CTE clinics across the country,” he says. “Traumatic brain injury has become a major part of the 21st century way of life."