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NFL considers study on pro, college players' brain injuries

NEW YORK -- The NFL will consider running a study that would examine whether or not playing in the league is more likely to result in long-term brain disease than playing only college football.

Northwestern University's Hunt Batjer, co-chairman of the NFL's Head, Neck and Spine Medical Committee, said Thursday that the proposed study would test a group of 100 to 150 former NFL players who are 55 to 65 years old and compare them to "an age-matched and position-matched cohort of football players who played NCAA but not the pros."

Both groups would be run through "a battery of advanced neuropsychological testing, cognitive studies, physical studies," Batjer said, in an effort to figure out "whether an NFL career predicts risks of cognitive decline prematurely."

Batjer believes that type of work to trace the long-term effects of playing football would be "so much more robust than a retrospective survey ... where a lot of the data that we currently have comes from -- and is flawed."

The possible study was among the ideas discussed at league headquarters Thursday, when the committee wrapped up two days of meetings about concussions and how to improve player safety.

The panel also worked on developing a uniform sideline exam that would be given to any player who might have suffered a concussion during a game. The exam would be used to determine whether or not the player should be allowed to return to the field that day.

Under the return-to-play guidelines set up a year ago, each team has been allowed to use its own tests to make that decision.

"What we want to do is develop a tool on the sidelines for concussion that all the team physicians, all the professional football athletic trainers, can use consistently, so in Seattle they do it the same way they do it in New Orleans," said co-chairman Richard Ellenbogen of the University of Washington. "We're not dictating medical care; we're setting up guidelines. We've been doing it in the past in a way that everybody does their own thing, but consistency might elevate everybody's game."

The standardized exam would include three components: cognitive, with questions for the player; neurological, with the athletic trainer or doctor examining the player's eyes and doing hands-on physical checks; and a balance test. The new exam needs to be vetted by the teams and approved by the league, but Ellenbogen said he expects it to be in place by next season -- and possibly as soon as this season.

Other proposals looked at Thursday:

» A database that would keep track of each player's medical history, including noting each time during his NFL career he sustains a head impact, including in practice.

» A statistical review of all published literature about head trauma in sports and cognitive decline.

» An interactive website to give current and former NFL players information about brain injuries and possible treatments.

"We don't want somebody to be onto something and have our athletes deprived of it," Batjer said.

Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press

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