It’s an old NFL maxim that a player’s legs are the first things to fail him. But it might actually be his brain. If a breakthrough in brain research stands up to empirical review, we may no longer have to wait until players like Dave Duerson and Junior Seau die to know if a lifetime of skull-rattling hits left them debilitated by dementia and depression.
A test developed by researchers at UCLA could use a routine PET scan to check players for evidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative neurological disease that has been linked to repeated head trauma and until now could only be diagnosed posthumously. It would be difficult to overstate the importance of the test, detailed Tuesday in The American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry. Just a few years from now, an NFL player in his prime could be shown a medical scan that spells the end of his career – not because of shredded knee ligaments, but because of the degradation of his brain.
“The implications for this could be enormous,” says Julian Bailes, the co-director of the NorthShore Neurological Institute in Evanston, Ill., and one of the lead researchers. “It could answer the question that a lot of players never thought to ask themselves — is it time to end a career before it’s too late?”