Best of The Neuroethics Blog: Is football safe for brains?
|Image courtesy of Pexels.
In recent years, there has been much public concern about the impact of football and other neurotraumatic sports on the brains of athletes. The neuroethics community has been somewhat slow in picking up sport-related concussion and Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) as topics of neuroethical concern. Public and media concern have been fueled by reports stating that the brains of deceased athletes show evidence of the distinctive tauopathy of CTE, attributed by researchers like Bennet Omalu (who described the first case in a retired football player in 2005) and Ann C. McKee (Boston University) to brain trauma sustained while playing sports. To date, there have been approximately 150 documented cases of CTE, and an exceptionally high number of the brains examined by Omalu, McKee, and colleagues have been positive for the characteristic tau depositions.
Of course, there is selection bias in neuropathological case studies, since few retired athletes donate their brains to research after death. Neuroscientist Alvaro Pascual-Leone of the FPHS was openly dismissive of the existing CTE research during his brief discussion of it, criticizing the work as woefully underpowered. The existing science is worth little, Pascal-Leone told the audience, implying that the current alarm about the neurological effects of football-related brain trauma is premature, and probably overblown.
|Moderator Nita Farahany and panel members Alvaro Pascual-Leone, I. Glenn Cohen,
and Damien Richardson (pictured from left to right).
Concussion and neurotrauma in professional football are the subjects of much neuroscientific activity, but the bigger problem, briefly alluded to by law professor I. Glenn Cohen, is not what happens to adult, professional athletes, but to the large number of junior and amateur players. While there are millions of high school football players in the United States, only several thousands of these players continue to play at the college level, and an even smaller fraction go on to play in the professional ranks. This fall, seven US high football players have already died, most of them due to head trauma-related injuries. The majority of reported concussions in the US occur in high school football players, while the impact of all that head trauma remains largely unknown and understudied. Damien Richardson, a former NFL player, and now a doctor and advisor to the FPHS, discussed his own long path to the pros while sitting on the panel, beginning with Pop Warner football when he was a kid, through high school and college ball. When asked if he thought pro football was safe, he demurred, but explained that knowing what he knows now, he would still play, but would play differently than he did.
Dr. Johnson is an Associate Professor of Philosophy & Bioethics in the Department of Humanities at Michigan Technological University. Her work in neuroethics focuses on disorders of consciousness and sport-related neurotrauma. She has published several articles on concussions in youth football and hockey, as well as on the ethics of return-to-play protocols in youth and professional football.
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Johnson, LSM (2019). Best of The Neuroethics Blog: Is football safe for brains? The Neuroethics Blog. Retrieved on , from http://www.theneuroethicsblog.com/2019/06/best-of-neuroethics-blog-is-football.html