Israeli Neuroscientist Could Have Answer to NFL Concussion Problem

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The research of Professor Alon Friedman of Ben Gurion University in the Negev could help detect early warning signs of brain disease.

Brain injuries caused during contact sports like football are nothing new.

The subject of concussions occurring among National Football League players has made headlines over the last several years, from President Barack Obama telling the New Yorker in January 2014 that if he had a son, he wouldn’t allow him to play football due to the risks of the sport, to the Feb. 9 announcement that the NFL had named its first chief health and medical adviser, Dr. Betsy Nabel, as a result of years of safety and legal issues regarding its players.


But NFL players, boxers and even the elderly may be reassured to know that about a 10-hour flight east of Philadelphia, Professor Alon Friedman and a team of graduate students at Ben Gurion University’s Zlotowski Center for Neuroscience, located in Israel’s southern city of Beersheva, are working on finding news ways  not only to treat, but also prevent, brain diseases such as Alzheimer’s, stroke and trauma-induced epilepsy.

Symptoms of that last disease, which is better known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy, often appear in NFL football players 20 or even 30 years after their initial injuries, Friedman told a group of about 50 senior residents at The Watermark at Logan Square in Center City on Feb. 12.

He explained that his team has developed a hypothesis that looking into what he termed the "blood brain barrier" — the lining in the brain that separates the brain’s neurons (which essentially tell the body what to do through electromagnetic impulses) from the blood vessels that surround the neurons — could offer doctors a head start on diagnosing brain disease.

Certain elements such as proteins or toxins, which are found in the blood vessels and are essential to the body’s ability to function, can be harmful to the brain when leaked in through a dysfunctional barrier caused by brain trauma like concussions, he elaborated. Since damage to the barrier is viewable very quickly after brain trauma, Friedman said, advanced MRIs zeroing in on the barrier could help neuroscientists identify players who will suffer from long-term effects caused by their injuries.

“Some of the players have severe brain damage” due to head trauma “although we could not see it any other way” than viewing the effects on the blood brain barrier, Friedman said. “If we could find these players, we could treat them and prevent long-term damage using long-term drugs.” Friedman noted that he hasn't sent his findings to the NFL as of yet and said he doesn't have current plans to do so.

If the NFL asks for information "we will be very happy to answer and supply more details," he said. "If they don’t contact us — I guess they have their own reasons — but it is not because they don’t know about it."

But it's not just athletes suffering from trauma-induced brain injuries that could benefit from his research, said Friedman, who was speaking in Philadelphia after attending an American Associates of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev board meeting in Baltimore, where he also spoke. 

“Our next study will focus on patients in their 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s that don’t have Alzheimer’s but have memory problems, movement disorders or other neurological disorders,” Friedman said. “The question is, will we be able to find early vascular injuries among these patients and treat them?”

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