The Pro Football Concussion Report

A Fan's Look at Head Injuries and the Concussion Crisis in Football

Study of 43 Players Proves CTE a Myth . . . or Not

cov_USDA

08.08.13

Risking ridicule from the scientific community, several researchers have released a study that questions the legitimacy of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) and the alleged heightened presence of the neurological disease in retired football players. Unfortunately, among other things, a source of funding for the study might cast some doubt on the validity of its conclusions.

*Prevalence and Characterization of Mild Cognitive Impairment in Retired National Football League Players, by Christopher Randolph, PhD, Stella Karantzoulis,PhD and Kevin Guskiewicz, PhD, with funding from Martek Biosciences attempts to throw a bucket of doubt on the raging theory that concussions in football players lead to an increase in long-term neurological damage and associated illnesses. (*Cambridge Journal charges $5.99 for 24hr access to read full text of paper)

 

“We still do not know if NFL players have an increased risk of late-life neurodegenerative disorders,” Randolph said. “If there is a risk, it probably is not a great risk. And there is essentially no evidence to support the existence of any unique clinical disorder such as CTE.”

 

So basically, no, the players don’t need to know “what they signed up for” because apparently they didn’t sign up for anything any riskier than the rest of us daily mouse-movers do. Okay . . . right.

This of course goes against previous scientific studiesand here, and here, that do conclude that there is an increased risk of dementia and alzheimers and ALS. In addition, it somewhat minimizes, or perhaps totally ignores the work done by other medical professionals regarding CTE. (Correction: The research paper in its full form, does discuss previous studies, including ones that support a finding of increased risk of late-life cognitive impairment).

First of all, none of the three authors of the study are medical doctors. They are academics. Much of the scientific progress regarding CTE has been accomplished by medical doctors performing research such as Bennett Omalu, MD and Ann McKee, MDBut in this case, each of the 3 listed authors of this study are strictly academic PhDs. Christopher Randolph, PhD is a board-certified clinical neuropsychologist and Clinical Professor of Neurology at Loyola University Medical Center. Stella Karantzoulis, PhD is also a board-certified clinical neuropsychologist and Assistant Professor of Neurology at NYU. And last but not least, is one of the NFL’s most prolific spokespersons,  Kevin Guskiewicz, PhD, academic Doctor in Sports Medicine, Certified Athletic Trainer, Professor at the University of North Carolina, MacArthur “Genius” grant recipient, TED-X speaker, and very visible member of the NFL Head, Neck and Spine Committee. Unlike the aforementioned medical doctors, it’s no certainty that any of these authors have ever cut open a football player’s brain and examined the damage that previous scientists have found so compelling.

But notwithstanding the credentials and experience of all of the well-regarded research professionals, the elephant in the room may be the money behind the study. No, this is not one of the NFL’s typically well-publicized grants – funding for this study is credited to a company named Martek Biosciences. Innocent sounding enough, the company produces popular nutritional supplements such as Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acid products. One of their big clients is Dean Foods, maker of the popular Silk soy products. There are some, including the well-regarded neurosurgeon Julian Bailes, MD who are actively engaged in the study (and perhaps the business) of omega-3 fatty acids as a nutritional supplement which may be helpful in treatment of brain injuries. Nevertheless, some of Martek’s products and nutritional claims, particularly its DHA product in infant milk has been the subject of controversy in the nutrition world. So now enter powerful Washington D.C. law firm Covington and Burling. Covington is one of the most well-regarded law firms in the world. Big Pharma, Big Oil and Big Countries all depend on the top Harvard, Stanford and Georgetown grads at Covington to minimize their exposure and keep them profitable. And of course, Big Football has depended on them for over 50 years. Former NFL Commisioner Paul Tagliabue, NFL VP and in-house Legal Counsel Jeff Pash and NFL CBA negotiator Gregg Levy are all current or former Covington and Burling lawyers. Most notoriously though, for years the firm was the tobacco industry’s chief legal strategist, helping to create the infamous science panels that disputed the dangers of second-hand smoke and the health benefits of filters and low tar cigarettes. During the tobacco litigation, lawyers were accused by the presiding federal judge of “suppressing research and destroying documents that were adverse to the companies’ public and litigation positions.” And coincidentally (we hope) Paul Tagliabue, the creator of the NFL’s 1980′s MTBI Committee, and the man that personally selected Elliot Pellman, MD as the Committee’s head was at Covington during the flourishing of those later discredited scientific research panels. Turns out, Covington has represented Martek since 2005. And UK Covington Senior Counsel, James Beery is even on Martek’s Board of Directors (Correction: Mr. Beery resigned from the Martek board in February 2011). Of course this doesn’t mean that Jeff Pash or Paul Tagliabue or any of the Covington lawyers had anything to do with Martek funding a scientific study who’s circulated headline is Study casts new doubts on football links with CTE.  Just a lucky break for 32 wealthy families in their legal and financial fight against 4,500 former employees and thousands of future former employees.

Added 8/11/13: The study reports that:

“As part of an industry-funded study of docoshexaenoic acid (DHA) in the treatment of MCI, an additional telephone screening was undertaken to identify retirees between the age of 50 and 75 who had probable MCI (mild cognitive impairment) . . . A total of 41 retirees were identified as having probable MCI, and were recruited for this study, which was carried out by the Center for the Study of Retired Athletes in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.”

 

The Center for the Study of Retired Athletes at UNC is run by NFL Head, Neck and Spine Committee member Kevin Guskiewicz (Center’s Research Director). Although Dr. Randolph did list a conflict of interest for himself (he is the author of the RBANS test used in the study and receives royalties for its sale), Dr. Guskiewicz did not report a conflict of interest as an author and significant contributor to the Loyola study on retired NFL players, while remaining an integral member  of the NFL’s science and medical committees.

 

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Can University Research Really Be Independent?

 

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