CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Not even the reigning NFL MVP Cam Newton could escape the growing list of athletes this season who’ve been diagnosed with a concussion.
Newton suffered a concussion in week 4 against the Atlanta Falcons.
“Concussions are real,” Newton said. “It’s a real issue.”
The NFL implemented new policy in July meant to enforce its concussion protocol, which includes the NFL Players Association and medical advisory committees, to address concussion diagnosis and management.
Dr. Ronald Brown, of the Carolina HealthSpan Institute, is working toward a medical solution to address its lingering effects.
“Every single former football player, much less NFL player is concerned about the repercussions of numerous concussions, and they should be,” he said.
Brown is part of a research project that spans eight NFL cities, including San Francisco, Los Angeles, Washington D.C., Denver, Chicago, Tampa Bay, Kansas City and Charlotte.
Former NFL players involved in the study played at least four seasons in the league, and faced mild cognitive damage, or worse.
The athletes suffer symptoms associated with the degenerative brain disease, chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE. It’s the result of repeated head trauma, but can only be diagnosed after death.
Its symptoms include memory loss, confusion, aggression, impulse control and depression.
“In one case I can tell you, we had somebody that almost couldn’t complete a sentence,” Brown said.
Former NFL mother Fostoria Pierson is among those concerned for her son’s safety. A first-round draft pick out of Nebraska, Michael Booker played defensive back in the NFL for five seasons.
Shortly after his career ended, Pierson said her son began exhibiting CTE symptoms, and now fears for his life.
“I said Mike, you need to get some help because as a mom, I did not want to receive a call from his wife saying ‘Mom, Michael put a gun in his mouth, or he drank antifreeze, or he hung himself,’” Pierson said.
Pierson has kept a handwritten journal of other NFL players who’ve exhibited CTE symptoms. Of the 92 on her list, 88 of them committed suicide.
"It frightens me,” said Brown. “The more I know, the more it frightens me."
Over 100 players were assessed as a part of Brown’s research, and 19 of whom started treatment, and 16 who completed it.
The treatment method used is called passive neurofeedback, which measures the brain signals in its current state, then sends a new signal, one closer to normal, for the brain to imitate.
Brown referred to the procedure as a “rebalancing” of the brain.
“We are observing it, and we are changing it,” he said.
The 16 players who completed the study underwent 24 treatment sessions over 90 days and finished three assessments.
There was also a control group of more than 10 players who did not receive any treatment and were assessed one year after their previous assessment. The study received its approval by the University of Minnesota.
“Every person in the study was better, significantly better,” Dr. Brown said.
Researchers said preliminary data showed a minimum average decrease in symptoms of 50 percent with increases in brain performance scores and positive changes in functional brain imaging. In Charlotte, participants averaged 75 percent reduction in symptoms.
Former NFL linebacker and Charlotte native Reggie Clark, was among the first players treated in Charlotte. Clark was diagnosed with symptoms of CTE.
“So for 15 years, I'm living like a half a zombie, and in a matter of 12 sessions of neurofeedback, twice a week, 15 minutes each, it's like day and night,” he said.
In the spring of 2010, Clark said he was correctly diagnosed by a neurologist in Chapel Hill after being misdiagnosed with early dementia by an NFL doctor years before.
He said he suffered blackouts, memory loss and delirium which he later learned were symptoms of CTE.
“It cost two relationships,” Clark said. “It caused a strain with my older kids.”
The Charlotte native said he has mixed feelings toward the NFL and is encouraged but its concussion protocol, but is still waiting for the league to fully commit to taking players out of the game after they’ve suffered a big hit.
“When you're young, and you're in the heat of the moment, you're not thinking about that,” he said.
That’s seemingly no longer the case for Newton.
“Lord knows I learned from it,” Newton said.
Watch Panthers head coach Ron Rivera suggest that the NFL eject players for targeting.
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