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League pledges $30 million to NIH to research brain injuries

NEW YORK – The NFL pledged $30 million for medical research to the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health.

Commissioner Roger Goodell on Wednesday announced the donation to the foundation, which helps raise private funding for the NIH, the nation’s leading medical research agency.

The same day the grant was announced, researchers published a study indicating that former NFL players are unusually prone to dying from degenerative brain disease.

The work, presented online in the journal Neurology, drew on a long-running study of more than 3,400 NFL players with at least five playing seasons in the league between 1959 and 1988. Some 334 had died by the end of 2007, the cutoff for the study.

Researchers found that deaths from Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and Lou Gehrig’s diseases, when combined, reached about three times the rate one would predict from the general population. The study did not look for chronic traumatic encephalopathy, but researchers said some of the deaths they counted could have been from misdiagnosed CTE.

“People exposed to head trauma can develop symptoms that look like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and (Lou Gehrig’s), but may have been (CTE),” said Dr. Charles Bernick, associate director of the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health in Las Vegas. “This (study) brings to light what we don’t know about these conditions.”

To learn more, the Ruvo Center, in conjunction with Boston University, will host an inaugural conference on CTE on Sept. 30 and Oct. 1.

“This is huge,” Bernick said. “We’re going to try to really come up with what are the key questions that haven’t been answered and the issues we need to start focusing on as a research community to try to understand this disease better.”

The Ruvo Center has been conducting a study of the brain health of professional fighters for nearly 18 months and operating a brain health clinic for retired athletes – including former NFL players – for more than six months.

The research funded by the NFL’s grant is designed to benefit athletes and the general population, including members of the military, Goodell said.

Bernick is hopeful the Ruvo Center will receive some of the funds.

“Hopefully there will be an opportunity to apply for some of the funds and hopefully we’ll be successful,” he said. “We’re fortunate here in Las Vegas to really be in position to be at the forefront to understanding this (CTE) condition, which not only affects the athlete but the military and so on.

“Hopefully, things will come out of this center that will be useful and improve our knowledge of this disease.”

Las Vegas Review-Journal reporter Todd Dewey contributed to this report.

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