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UCSF Study Probes Long-Term Effects of Head Trauma -- and Not Just in Football

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Doctors are seeing more head trauma from everyday activities, such as falling off a bike. (San Francisco Bicycle Coalition/Flickr)

Traumatic brain injury has long been associated with combat and, more recently, contact sports like football. Now head injuries among "the rest of us" are getting a long look from researchers, too.

"They're actually very, very common," said Geoff Manly, who chairs the Dept. of Neurosurgery at UCSF and is leading the study. He says nearly 3 million people with head injuries turn up at U.S. emergency rooms every year, caused by everything from traffic accidents to falling down stairs to being thrown off a bicycle. Manley says the numbers are increasing yearly "on a scale that dwarfs" the problem in sports alone.

"Historically, we've sort of treated this as an event, rather than a process," he said. "And now we see that many people are suffering long-term consequences of these injuries."

The National Football League is putting up nearly $3.5 million to fund the long-term study of "community-acquired" concussions and the long-range effects they have on some patients, such as depression, dementia, Parkinson's and Alzheimer's.

The study will track patients from the time they present for emergency care to as long as seven years beyond, to try to determine why some patients are able to shake off head trauma, while others are plagued with long-term and sometimes fatal consequences.


"It's probably not just by chance that there's a strong association between prior history of TBI and the development of some of these disorders," says Manley. "We're trying to figure out what those risk factors are and hoping that in identifying these risk factors, we can find a mechanism."

With funding from the NFL's Play Smart - Play Safe initiative, Manley says, the study will track about 2,700 patients whose data has already been gathered by major trauma centers around the country. The research team will collect data on brain imaging, blood-based biomarkers and outcome assessments of psychological health, physical recovery and functional status.

The results could also provide insights into a condition known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy, which has turned up in alarming numbers of professional football players and is blamed for the tragic deaths of former stars like Pittsburgh Steelers center "Iron" Mike Webster and San Diego Chargers linebacker Junior Seau.

In the wake of these high-profile cases and associated litigation, the NFL has set aside $40 million in funding for medical research, primarily dedicated to neuroscience.

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