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NFL Money Will Fund Seattle Doctor's Concussion Research

The National Football League is paying for a Seattle scientist to study head injuries in student athletes, testing a solution to the problem of how to diagnose and measure concussions.

With all the focus on sports and head trauma lately, it may come as a surprise that medicine actually doesn’t have great ways to measure common brain injuries. They don’t usually show up on brain scans, even though we know they can cause serious and lasting neurological problems.

Seattle Children’s Hospital neurosurgeon Jeffrey Ojemann thinks a particular brain chemical, called GABA, could hold the key. Changes in that chemical might allow doctors to measure how severe the injury is, and how the recovery is going.

“It sure would be nice to have some objective measure that can tell you, 'Probably you're out for the season,’ so expectations can be clear,” said Ojemann. “Or, 'This is something where you're really going to have a lot of memory difficulties, so let’s focus on that.”'

Ojemann will examine a small group of patients — just 10 kids with brain injuries, and another 10 with other kinds of sports-related injuries as a control group. He said he expects at least to figure out if they’re on the right track with this pilot study.

“There’s a high chance that we may not get an answer, but it’s a high reward if we do,” he said.  

Ojemann’s $100,000 grant is part of a $30 million effort funded by the NFL to study brain trauma. A University of Washington brain tissue bank will also play a big role, helping scientists tease out the link between isolated head injuries and the chronic, degenerative condition that affects many athletes later in life.

Gabriel Spitzer is a former KNKX reporter, producer and host who covered science and health and worked on the show Sound Effect.