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Exploring the Blood-Brain Barrier of NFL Players

Exploring the Blood-Brain Barrier of NFL Players

March 5, 2015

Medical Research

Jewish Exponent — Brain injuries caused during contact sports like football are nothing new.

The subject of concussions occurring among National Football League players has made headlines over the last several years, from President Barack Obama telling the New Yorker in January 2014 that if he had a son, he wouldn’t allow him to play football due to the risks of the sport, to the February announcement that the NFL had named its first chief health and medical adviser, Dr. Betsy Nabel, as a result of years of safety and legal issues regarding its players.

Prof. Alon Friedman

Prof. Alon Friedman

But NFL players, boxers and even the elderly may be reassured to know that Prof. Alon Friedman and his team of graduate students at the Zlotowski Center for Neuroscience, are working on finding new ways not only to treat, but also prevent, brain diseases such as Alzheimer’s, stroke and trauma-induced epilepsy.

Symptoms of that last disease, which is better known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy, often appear in NFL football players 20 or even 30 years after their initial injuries, Prof. Friedman recently told a group of about 50 senior residents at The Watermark at Logan Square in Philadelphia’s Center City.

He explained that his team has developed a hypothesis that looking into what he termed the “blood-brain barrier” — the lining in the brain that separates the brain’s neurons (which essentially tell the body what to do through electromagnetic impulses) from the blood vessels that surround the neurons — could offer doctors a head start on diagnosing brain disease.

Certain elements such as proteins or toxins, which are found in the blood vessels and are essential to the body’s ability to function, can be harmful to the brain when leaked in through a dysfunctional barrier caused by brain trauma like concussions.

Since damage to the barrier is viewable very quickly after brain trauma, advanced MRIs zeroing in on the barrier could help neuroscientists identify players who will suffer from long-term effects caused by their injuries.

“If we could find these players, we could treat them and prevent long-term damage using long-term drugs,” says Prof. Friedman.

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