The Doctor the NFL Tried to Silence
League physicians sought to discredit Bennet Omalu’s autopsy study showing widespread brain damage in former Steelers star Mike Webster
WSJ. Nov. 24, 2015
In 2002, a Pittsburgh neuropathologist named Bennet Omalu, a native of Nigeria, examined the body of 50-year-old former Pittsburgh Steelers center Mike Webster. At the end of his life, Webster had suffered a steep mental decline, becoming violent, depressed and forgetful and pushed to increasingly desperate lengths to battle chronic pain. In Webster’s brain, Dr. Omalu, who holds multiple advanced degrees and certifications from top American medical schools, discovered what would mark a turning point in the evolution of thinking about the effects of head injuries in professional football. The following excerpt is from “Concussion” published this week by Random House, and is based on the author’s interviews and other research. Laskas’s reporting is the focus of a forthcoming movie by the same name.
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There are computer algorithms to measure reaction time, using game-like programs. But they’re not so good for use at the sidelines, and they involve licensing fees.
But it remains to be seen if anyone will go to the trouble of standardizing and making the puck-on-a-stick test, if it pans out in future studies. “Our technology transfer people say it’s too simple to patent,” Eckner says.
So the Michigan researchers are working on a fancier device they call the Quick Stick. “It has some sensors inside and a light on it,”
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Pathologist Bennet Omalu found Mike Webster had a disease that would be called chronic traumatic enceph alopathy, or CTE.
The disease can cause the behavioral changes that afflicted Webster.
He was sure the CTE came from repeated pounding on the football field.
The league sent its findings to the medical journal Neurosurgery, says Fainaru-Wada.
“They publish in that journal repeatedly over the period of several years, papers that really minimize the dangers of concussions.
They talk about [how] there doesn’t appear to be any problem with players returning to play.
They even go so far as to suggest that professional football players do not suffer from repetitive hits to the head in football games.”
On reaching a scientific consensus linking football to brain injury
Fainaru: I do think there is a consensus now among neuroscientists. I think the real question now is, what is the prevalence, is it still relatively rare, or is this something that’s an epidemic, as some people have suggested?
Neuroimaging of Cognitive Dysfunction and Depression in Aging Retired National Football League Players
JAMA Neurol. March 2013;70(3):326-335.
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