Doctor finds way to diagnose brain damage in living people who've had concussions

February 28, 2013 4:51:32 AM PST
We're taking a closer look at something that concerns many parents of young athletes, concussions. This year, the state put new rules in place to protect student athletes from serious damage from concussions. Now we have a look at some first-of-its-kind concussion research.

The results are groundbreaking. For the first time, there's hope for football players and others whose brains have been damaged by concussions. We went to the Northshore University Health System outside of Chicago to talk with one of the nation's leading experts.

Neurosurgeon Dr. Julian Bailes showed us a healthy brain on the left, then a brain damaged by football on the right. The damaged one was lit up by markers for Tau proteins, a "sludge" that prevents normal function.

"We had to be able to diagnose it in a living person in order to have any hope of helping them," Dr. Bailes said.

For the first time, damaged brains are seen in living players; football players previously had been diagnosed only at autopsy.

"Instead of not knowing and not being able to help before they reach the end or before they commit suicide, which happens in many cases," Dr. Bailes said.

All of this is personal for former NFL tight end John Andrews.

"It's very scary," Andrews said.

The Sugar Land resident watched his former teammate and mentor, Hall of Fame tight end John Mackey, succumb to dementia in 2011.

"To see now that he can't function. He can't talk. His speech is slurred. It was unbelievable," Andrews said.

Andrews offers a fascinating case, and is now thankful his NFL career lasted only five years at a cost of 10 concussions.

"Back then, they'd just give you a little smelling salts, and you stayed out a couple plays and you went back in," Andrews said.

Andrews appreciates Dr. Bailes research, but he doesn't want to know if his brain had been damaged by the sport he loved.

"At my age, I'm 64, so I think I'd rather not know," he said.

Back in Evanston, Illinois, Dr. Bailes reminds us it's not just concussions that damage the brain.

"It's the brain moving inside the skull, rotating, suddenly starting and stopping," Dr. Bailes said.

Even repeated, routine football collisions can tear the brain's fibers.

"We think at the youth football level, it's probably 50 to 100 blows to the head a year. At the high school level, probably around 600. At the collegiate level, maybe 700-800 up to 1,000 or more," Dr. Bailes.

Years of research, initially sparked by his work as the team doctor for the Pittsburgh Steelers, leads Bailes to conclude the game must change to take the head out of football.

The next step is to confirm the findings with more players. In the meantime, Dr. Bailes has a new ally in Alabama, Coach Nick Saban. They've worked together to eliminate head to head contact in Pop Warner Football practices.


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