The National Football League and General Electric (GE) announced a new four-year, $60 million research partnership this week aimed at improving diagnosis and treatment of mild traumatic brain injuries (mTBIs) such as concussions.
The new Head Health Initiative will devote $40 million over the next four years toward researching magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) biomarkers that could potentially help with the diagnosis and management of brain injuries.
Physiological differences in the brains of adults and children mean that all brain-injury research for adults won’t necessarily apply to youths. With that said, certain research developments—such as a means for tracking long-term brain injury in living athletes—could be game-changers in terms of sports-concussion research for athletes of all ages.
“For all the advances in science our knowledge of the brain is far behind that of nearly every other organ in the body,” Jeff Immelt, GE chairman and chief executive officer, said in a statement. “With this initiative, we will advance our research and apply our learning to sports-related concussions, brain injuries suffered by members of the military and neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. Advancing brain science will help families everywhere.”
Along with the $40 million research and development project, the NFL also announced a two-year, $20 million open innovation challenge in partnership with GE and the sports-apparel company Under Armour. The first of those two challenges, which officially launched on Monday, is seeking proposals that address diagnosis and prognosis of mTBIs. The second challenge, which launches this coming fall, will focus more on mTBI prevention and identification.
“Our collaboration with GE and Under Armour and the launch of the innovation challenges puts us on an accelerated path to progress with experienced scientists, academics and entrepreneurs dedicated to developing game-changing technologies that will benefit athletes, the military and all members of society,” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said in a statement.
In an interview with the Associated Press after Monday’s announcement, Goodell mentioned the possibility of players wearing helmets with sensors to help detect hits that could cause concussions. Such helmets are already being used by researchers to determine the severity of hits during youth-football practices, for instance.
Goodell also noted the seemingly paradoxical relationship between better equipment and more dangerous styles of play, as mentioned in the latest consensus statement on concussion in sport.
“The better protection the helmet provides, sometimes the more likely (players) are to use their head, and that’s a dilemma that we have to change, in part through rules,” Goodell told the AP. “But I also see that we could potentially change the helmet by making it lighter. (That) would make it less of a weapon.”
Even if this latest NFL-GE partnership doesn’t result in research that can benefit youth athletes, Goodell and the NFL have been vocal supporters of youth-sports safety legislation in recent years. In 2011, Goodell re-emphasized his goal to have all 50 states adopt youth-concussion laws, and the NFL and National Collegiate Athletic Association sent letters in January of last year urging the states that hadn’t yet adopted such legislation to do so ASAP.
By my count, every state besides Mississippi is either currently considering youth-concussion legislation (six states) or already has such a law (43 states and the District of Columbia).
Photo: NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell takes questions during an NFL football news conference in New York on Monday. The NFL is partnering with private companies as well as the U.S. military to further research on head injuries. (Seth Wenig/AP)
A version of this news article first appeared in the Schooled in Sports blog.