FANTAB Scientific Background

NFL alumni with a history of concussions have objective evidence of abnormal brain activity. The NFL alumni brains' frontal lobes are hyperactive and disconnected from other brain areas. This is the first objective evidence of mTBI ("mild" traumatic brain injury) in living patients; previously this was only possible by autopsy after death.

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Hypoconnectivity and Hyperfrontality in Retired American Football Players

The project's leader, Adrian Owen, PhD, is Canada Excellence Research Chair in Cognitive Neuroscience and Imaging, Centre for Brain and Mind, University of Western Ontario, Canada (UWO). The study's first author, Adam Hampshire PhD, is also a neuroscientist at UWO, both formerly of Cambridge University, UK. The study was conducted at the Applied fMRI Institute, San Diego, California (AFI). NFL alumni with past concussions were compared to age-matched controls from AFI's database of normal subjects. None of the NFL players had been diagnosed with any neurological or psychiatric conditions, although all of them suffered from memory and mood problems. The study subjects took a series of neuropsychological tests while lying in the MR scanner watching a screen and pressing buttons to answer. The change in blood flow to the activated brain areas were recorded by fMRI. The players' answers were in the normal range, but their brain activations were abnormal. The hyperactivity in the frontal lobes and the hypoconnectivity to other brain areas was significantly correlated with the number of game concussions. The accuracy of predicting patients from normal was 84%, using a computer learning technique called a support vector machine (SVM). The authors concluded:

"functional neuroimaging analyses were far more effective than behavioral testing when subdividing NFL alumni and controls at the individual participant level…the results accord particularly closely with the hypothesis that exposure to repetitive mTBI during the course of the professional NFL career leads to abnormal frontal lobe function. These results support the hypothesis that NFL alumni have a heightened probability of developing executive dysfunction and suggest that fMRI provides the most sensitive biomarker of the underlying neural abnormality."


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