The NFL May Have Pulled Out of a BU Brain Disease Study

The research will focus on finding diagnostic tests for the degenerative brain disease CTE.

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Robert Stern photo via AP Photo/Stephan Savoia

Boston University announced Tuesday that it has been given $16 million to study the brain disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE)—a condition often linked to sports-related head trauma—from The National Institutes of Health/National Institutes of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NIH/NINDS).

Conspicuously absent from the announcement? The NFL.

In 2012, despite its complicated history with brain disease research, the NFL gave the NIH a $30 million research grant “in support of research on serious medical conditions prominent in athletes and relevant to the general population,” according to a NIH release following the gift. BU’s study was originally supposed to be funded using that money; now, however, ESPN is reporting that the NFL may have “backed out of” the study, perhaps because it is led by BU neurology professor Robert Stern, who has been openly skeptical of the NFL’s handling of brain injury risk and research in the past.

The NFL has denied that it pulled funding for the study, saying only the NIH decides independently how to use its funds; NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy also tweeted that the ESPN story “is not accurate.” Despite several unnamed sources in the ESPN story who claim that the NFL elected not to use its funds for the BU brain disease study, the article also quotes Walter Koroshetz, director of NINDS:

“No one has ever said that to me: ‘The NFL said no,'” he said. “They’re their own organization. They have committed $30 million; I am hopeful they stick to their commitment. If they don’t, then I’ll be upset.”

Despite the NFL controversy, the CTE study—which will span seven years and 17 research centers—could be a breakthrough in developing diagnostic techniques for the degenerative condition, which can currently only be identified after death.

The study will examine former NFL and college football players, as well as individuals with no history of brain damage. Both groups will undergo PET and MRI scans, blood tests, and other measures of determining changes in the brain, in the hopes that researchers will learn more about how and why CTE develops.

In the announcement from BU, lead researcher Stern said the study could make diagnosing, treating, and understanding CTE far easier:

“There are so many critical unanswered questions about CTE. We are optimistic that this project will lead to many of these answers, by developing accurate methods of detecting and diagnosing CTE during life, and by examining genetic and other risk factors for this disease.”