The “Concussion Doctor” SpeaksMarch 2018
By Jon Vanzile
the movie “Concussion,”
released in 2015 by
In 2015, Will Smith starred in the major motion-picture Concussion.
In it, he played Bennet Omalu, M.D., a pathologist who fought to expose the extreme and potentially life-threatening dangers of a severe form of brain injury called chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).
The movie was based on the true story of this medical hero who took on the National Football League and the medical establishment, which sought to discredit Dr. Omalu’s findings and destroy his career.
Dr. Omalu’s work eventually forced the NFL to implement changes aimed at helping protect players from long-term brain damage.
But there’s more to this story.
While the toll among professional athletes is bad enough, it’s dwarfed by the burden that millions of nonprofessional athletes—especially children and adolescents—will carry for the rest of their lives after suffering sports-related head injuries.
In his book, Truth Doesn’t Have a Side, Dr. Omalu takes on this epidemic of traumatic brain injury (TBI) in the United States.
Even mild TBIs can cause headaches, fatigue, dizziness, sleep problems, and mood disorders.1 It can also cause serious psychiatric disorders like depression, aggression, and increased risk of suicide.2
Despite the dangers—and the prevalence—mainstream medicine doesn’t know much about the condition, and certainly doesn’t have any ways to effectively treat it.
Fortunately, a number of innovative doctors are working to revolutionize the treatment of traumatic brain injury.
The NFL and Traumatic Brain Injury
In 2005, the prestigious journal Neurosurgery published Dr. Bennet Omalu’s blockbuster report detailing his findings from the autopsy of Mike Webster.3 This former player for the Pittsburgh Steelers died suddenly at age 50 in 2002 after struggling for years with progressive neurological symptoms.
After conducting the autopsy, Dr. Omalu concluded that Mike Webster suffered from a neurodegenerative disease as a result of repeated blows to the head. This condition, chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, is characterized by the accumulation of tau proteins in the brain, similar to Alzheimer’s disease.4
In his conclusion, Dr. Omalu wrote, “This case highlights potential long-term neurodegenerative outcomes in retired professional National Football League players subjected to repeated mild traumatic brain injury.”3
The backlash against Dr. Omalu was intense and instant. Worried about protecting its profits, the NFL immediately launched an organized and well-funded campaign to destroy him. First, the league pushed for retraction of his paper.
“To get a retraction, you need to successfully prove the researcher engaged in fraudulent behavior and generated false data,” Dr. Omalu said. “They were pretty much labeling me a criminal.”
To help bolster its case, Dr. Omalu said the NFL made a substantial grant to Boston University to fund research that would discredit him. At the same time, the medical establishment mobilized against Dr. Omalu and his research.
“They knew what they were doing,” he said. “If they had succeeded, that would have been the end of me. I would have lost my license and my career would be over. But I defended myself and presented my data to a committee at the journal. A ruling was made that I had done nothing wrong.”
Unfortunately for Dr. Omalu, his trials weren’t over yet. Once his findings had been accepted and CTE described as a legitimate issue, the medical establishment launched a furious assault against him to discredit him personally and professionally. He was ostracized at every level of his profession, denied funding to continue his research, and he avoided conferences for fear of professional retaliation.
“I had to spend my own money because nobody would give me any to fund my research,” he said. “They even enlisted the National Institutes of Health. Usually if someone introduces something new, the NIH will invite them to talk and see what they need. That didn’t happen with me.”
In fact, the narrative was “being rewritten” as the truth of his findings gained traction, and Dr. Omalu found himself being written out of the story.
“I was very confused,” he said. “Why would they want to remove me? Other doctors were going around saying they were the first to publish this. In 2016, the NIH said it was the first to establish a diagnostic criteria for CTE. What about me? It was very difficult. I struggled with depression and contemplated suicide.”
His enemies in the NFL and medical establishment stooped to the worst kind of smear campaign, he said.
“They used xenophobia against me because I’m a black guy and a foreigner,” he said. “I wasn’t a big name. I didn’t have a big lab. I was working from my apartment and paying for my own research. But I believed the truth would prevail. It just took a foreigner from Nigeria to prove this was happening in America’s biggest sport.”
Ultimately, Dr. Omalu took his story to Hollywood, the only institution in America he thought was powerful enough to get the truth out about CTE and his story. “Will Smith didn’t want to do the movie at first,” he said. “But he did it to make the truth known. I’m deeply grateful to Hollywood, but it’s still affecting me. I’m still being marginalized.”
In 2016, Boston University rescinded its plans to give Dr. Omalu the prestigious Beyond Health Award. The school’s reason? An interview Dr. Omalu gave in which he cited a potential conflict of interest at the school’s Concussion Legacy Foundation and World Wrestling Entertainment, Inc., which is also struggling with the CTE question thanks to Dr. Omalu’s pioneering work.
There’s no way to know how many NFL players suffer from CTE because it can only be diagnosed post-mortem, but there’s no debate it’s widespread. The list of professional football players who have committed suicide or died of other causes and had CTE diagnosed at autopsy includes Andre Waters (2006), Junior Seau (2012), Ken Stabler (2016), Dave Duerson (2011), Ray Easterling (2012), and dozens more—including at least seven members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.5
In fact, according to a 2017 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, the number of NFL players who suffer from CTE could be as high as 99%. The blockbuster study examined the donated brains of 111 NFL players and found evidence of mild to severe CTE in 110. It was found in every position, from placekicker to quarterback to linebacker.6
This means that playing in the NFL is, in terms of this specific affliction, more dangerous than fighting in Iraq, where tens of thousands of soldiers suffered mild traumatic brain injury (TBI).
Why Children are More at Risk
While the link between chronic traumatic encephalopathy and professional football is new, the connection between sports and brain injury has been known for decades.7 We are all familiar with famous boxer Muhammad Ali, who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 1984 and publicly struggled with it for the rest of his life.8
But the risk is especially great for children and adolescents involved in sports.
A survey published in the journal Pediatrics estimated that 1.1 to 1.9 million children and adolescents under the age of 18 sustain a sports-related concussion every year.9 And according to the American Association of Neurological Surgeons (AANS), sports-related injuries contribute to about 21% of all TBIs reported in American children and adolescents.10
In fact, TBI is the leading cause of sports-related fatality.10
As far back as 1957, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a position paper warning that children should not engage in football, boxing, or wrestling out of a fear of head injury.11 Almost 20 years later, the Lancet published an editorial saying it was “foolhardy” for people to engage in sports that have a risk of brain trauma.12
And now, with Dr. Omalu’s new book, Truth Doesn’t Have a Side, he is sounding the alarm once again.
“I don’t think any child under 18 should play a high-impact, high-contact sport,” he told Life Extension®. “That includes football, rugby, boxing, hockey, mixed-martial arts, and wrestling. The most important part of your life is your intellect, your intuition. If a game is meant to uplift your state of well-being, but actually robs you of your well-being, that is not a game. That is not a sport.”
Many people might not realize that you don’t have to suffer from a concussion to experience a traumatic brain injury.
“The focus on concussions alone is ridiculous,” he says. “Concussion is a disease caused by TBI. The more important issue is subconcussive, repetitive injury. Every blow to the head causes brain injury. Every blow.”
The bottom line, according to Dr. Omalu, is that there is no safe level of head trauma.
The Search for Answers
Despite intense research into better understanding the neurobiological effects of mild TBI and concussion, there is no approved biomarker test used to diagnose it—and no consensus about exactly how mild TBI causes the long-term brain damage and cognitive deficits seen in so many soldiers and athletes.13 This lack of agreement makes identification and treatment exponentially more difficult.
Most TBI cases are never reported, and few people get medical attention. Those who do are typically seen on an outpatient basis.9
Clearly, something has to change.
If there is a silver lining, it’s that the increased focus on sports-related head trauma has spurred interest in novel approaches to limit the damage and help victims recover. There is no cure for CTE, but for the first time, innovative doctors are raising the hope of at least containing the damage.
Hormones and Brain Injury
While mainstream medicine continues to struggle just to understand chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a number of physicians are looking to revolutionize treatment of traumatic brain injury.
Their focus is on hormone replacement therapy.
The National Institutes of Health database has dozens of studies showing the interaction between hormone status and TBI, yet virtually no mainstream doctors are using hormone therapy to address long-term damage caused by repeated TBI.
For example, there is a well-documented connection between reduced pituitary function and mild TBI. Specifically, studies have found hypopituitarism in 16% to 68% of patients.14-16 The more severe the injury, the worse the damage.17
The pituitary gland is responsible for producing critical hormones, including growth hormone and thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH), as well as stimulating the production of sex hormones such estrogen and testosterone.
Because of the reduced pituitary function, patients with TBI often suffer from low growth-hormone levels and reduced production of gonadotropins (FSH and LH) and thyroid-stimulating hormone.18,19 This reduction in growth hormone has been linked to increased abdominal obesity and metabolic alterations that are observable years after the original injury.20
Reductions in sex hormone levels after mild traumatic brain injury have been observed in mice.21 In adolescent animals, repeated mild traumatic brain injury has been linked to hypogonadism in adulthood, as well as delayed puberty and erectile dysfunction.22
Research has shown that testosterone levels can be a good indicator of function in TBI patients.23
An animal study showed that treatment with estrogen reduced delayed swelling in the brain and intracranial pressure.24 Estrogen has well-known neuroprotective and anti-inflammatory properties.25,26
These discoveries have prompted innovative physicians to investigate treating the long-term effects of TBI with hormone-replacement therapy. Among these groundbreaking doctors is Dr. Mark L. Gordon, who understood the importance of reduced pituitary function in this context years ago while treating a young man exhibiting signs of sports-induced brain injury. Today, he treats soldiers and athletes at his clinic, Millennium Health Centers, and hormone replacement is a vital part of his protocol.
Dr. Gordon’s hormone-balancing approach relies on diligent testing, followed by physiological doses of vital hormones. The goal is to restore hormone levels to the middle of the optimal range, while carefully monitoring each patient for improvement. His results have earned him invitations to speak about hormone therapy at conferences on traumatic brain injury.
“For traumatic brain injury patients,” Dr. Gordon told Life Extension, “any proper diagnosis and treatment protocol should begin with baseline testing of testosterone, growth hormone, thyroid, cortisol, insulin, and vitamin D.”
Reversing Brain Damage in Former Football Players
In 2014, William Faloon wrote an article in Life Extension Magazine® titled Outwitting our Aging Brain. It described how aging people suffer diminished brain blood-flow and what can be done to correct it.
In the box below is an excerpt from the article that describes a study showing reversal of traumatic brain injury clinical measures in response to a six-month treatment using specific nutrients:
The Gut-Brain Connection
Researchers are also beginning to understand the potential of using the “gut brain” to help treat TBI.63 This is a layer of nerve cells in the digestive system known as the enteric nervous system (ENS) that is sometimes called the “second brain” or “gut brain.”
The enteric nervous system functions independently of the central nervous system, secreting enzymes, immune system components, and hormones and relying on neurotransmitters identical to the ones used in the brain.63,64
Researchers used to think that communication between the central nervous system and the enteric nervous system was a one-way street, with the brain passing signals to the gut.65 In more recent years, we have learned that communication is a two-way street and the ENS is in constant communication with the brain.
People with TBI show “structural damage to the GI tract.”66 This raises the possibility that treating the ENS/CNS axis by restoring normal gut flora, neurotransmitter function, and hormone production might reduce the risk of CTE and even help reduce symptoms of existing CTE.
There has been an explosion in the recognition and diagnosis of TBI and CTE in recent years, both in professional sports and among the general population. Despite this wave of new cases, our understanding of the underlying mechanisms of traumatic brain injury and CTE remains primitive. As a result, millions of cases are likely not diagnosed and people don’t receive proper treatment.
The effects of TBI can include headaches, fatigue, dizziness, sleep and mood disturbances, and cognitive, behavioral, and personality changes. The risk of suicide among people suffering from CTE caused by repeated mild TBIs is much higher than the normal population.
New research is helping us understand the link between TBI and disturbances in the endocrine system. Innovative doctors are using hormone replacement therapy, along with specific nutrients, to help reduce the effects of CTE and improve patients’ quality of life.
If you have any questions on the scientific content of this article, please call a Life Extension® Wellness Specialist at 1-866-864-3027.
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