Active Projects

The Football Players Health Study leads efforts to develop and support innovative research that has the potential to impact the health of current, former, and future NFL players. These research initiatives include a first questionnaire for former players, and other studies to develop diagnostics, devices, and treatments conducted by researchers across Harvard University and its affiliated hospitals. At this time, only our first questionnaire is openly enrolling former players to participate. For questions about these projects, please contact info@footballplayershealth.harvard.edu.

Health and Wellness: Research that focuses on overall health and wellness.

Health and Wellness

Health and Wellness Questionnaire
Summary: Our first questionnaire, which focuses on overall health and wellness, was made available to all former NFL players starting in early 2015 and is currently open. The goal of this questionnaire is to collect information on the total group, or cohort, of former professional NFL players to better understand the health impact of a professional football career. The questionnaire collects demographics, overall health assessment factors, physical function and ability, mental well-being, and medical history. To date, we have over 3,700 former players that have participated, making the Football Players Health Study the largest study ever of living former players. This questionnaire will continue to be available to former players, as the goal is to reach thousands of additional players, continue to collect data that will serve as a baseline for the Study, and create follow-up studies.
Brain Function: Research that examines overall brain health, function, and injuries.

Brain Function

Concussions – Red/Near-Infrared Light Therapy for Traumatic Brain Injury
Principal Investigators: William Meehan III, MD, Boston Children’s Hospital

Ross Zafonte, DO, Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital

Michael Whalen, MD, Massachusetts General Hospital
Summary: One of the current hypotheses regarding prolonged recovery after concussion contends that there is a need for more energy in the form of adenosine triphosphate, more commonly known as ATP. When shined on cells in culture, light in the red-near infrared spectrum results in greater ATP synthesis. Thus, shining light on brain cells after a concussion might result in a greater increase in ATP and, perhaps, a faster recovery. In fact, in conjunction with Marney Naeser, PhD, and others, the results of preliminary animal studies and in-human trials have been published in the Journal of Neurotrauma, Lasers in Surgery and Medicine, and Photomedicine and Laser Surgery. This hypothesis is currently being tested in a double-blinded, randomized controlled trial with funding from the Football Players Health Study.
Gary Strangman, PhD
Preventing Injuries in Football: On-Field Brain Movement and Activity Monitoring
Principal Investigator: Gary Strangman, PhD, Massachusetts General Hospital
Summary: Brain injuries in contact-sports are a serious concern, but to date it has only been possible to measure the acceleration of the head or helmet, not the all-important movement of the brain inside the skull. Recent advances in our lab may make it possible—for the first time—to non-invasively monitor the direction and amplitude of brain movement inside the skull, even while players are on the field. This capability, which will undergo initial validation and feasibility testing via this project, will help provide a more objective and quantitative understanding of how and when football players sustain head injuries, and provide improved guidance on how to reduce or eliminate such injuries.
Kun Ping Lu, MD, PhD
Antibody Therapy for Treating Brain Injury and Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy
Principal Investigator: Kun Ping Lu, MD, PhD, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center
Summary: Exposure to repetitive mild traumatic brain injury can lead to progressive neurodegeneration, notably chronic traumatic encephalopathy and Alzheimer’s disease, but there is currently no effective treatment. We have not only recently discovered a novel early driver of neurodegeneration after traumatic brain injury, cis p-tau, that mediates and spreads brain damage, but also developed a potent therapeutic agent, cis antibody, that effectively stops cis p-tau from causing brain damage, brain dysfunction, and even brain shrinkage after single severe traumatic brain injury. Here, we will evaluate preclinical efficacy of our cis antibody in stopping brain damage and preventing chronic traumatic encephalopathy and Alzheimer’s disease after repetitive mild traumatic brain injury, and, depending on the funding level, will additionally develop a humanized cis p-tau antibody that is needed for clinical trials on TBI patients.
Neuroimaging Workgroup
Faculty Leaders: Georges El Fakhri, PhD, DABR, Massachusetts General Hospital

Michael Fox, MD, PhD, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center
Summary The Neuroimaging Workgroup is a diverse team of imaging and neurology experts from Harvard’s affiliated teaching hospitals. Drawing on their experience in neuroimaging, this collaborative research effort supports the goals of the Football Players Health Study through research on and development of brain imaging biomarkers for the injuries and illnesses that former professional football players face, with the ultimate goal of creating new strategies for diagnosis and prevention.
Heart FunctionResearch that explores the heart function.

Heart Function

Aaron Baggish, MD
Cardiac Issues Among Athletes – Myocardial Dysfunction of Football Players
Principal Investigator Aaron Baggish, MD, Massachusetts General Hospital
Summary: Many football players are strength-trained athletes, as opposed to endurance athletes, as they train for repetitive bursts of intense activity. This strength training may affect the heart differently than endurance training. Specifically, strength training may make the walls of the heart stiff and inflexible, which challenges the heart to work to fill with blood. The potential negative long-term consequences are currently being studied with funding from the Football Players Health Study.
Law & Ethics: Legal and ethical factors affecting player health, and recommendations for improvement.

Law & Ethics

Qualitative Study/Listening Tour
Investigators Sarah McGraw, PhD, The Hastings Center

Christopher R. Deubert, JD, MBA, Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics

I. Glenn Cohen, JD, Harvard Law School, Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics

Holly Fernandez Lynch, JD, M.Bioethics, Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics
Summary This study consists of a series of one-on-one interviews that solicit direct feedback from approximately 40-60 current and former players and their families. The goal is to better understand the perspectives of these key stakeholders on the following topics: overall NFL experience; improving player safety; health, family and social issues; support as a professional athlete; life after football; risk disclosure and risk taking; healthcare and club medical staff; medical screenings; and injury and pain management. Findings from this study will inform the NFL, NFLPA, and other stakeholders on how to better understand and prioritize action concerning player health matters.
 
Pain and Mobility: Research that explores diagnostics, prevention, and treatment for pain and mobility issues.

Pain and Mobility

Martha Murray, MD
Anterior Cruciate Ligament (ACL) Repair – A Novel Treatment for ACL Injuries
Principal Investigator Martha Murray, MD, Boston Children’s Hospital
Summary: In 2013, NFL players suffered approximately 65 anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) tears. Currently, the torn ACL cannot heal itself and needs, instead, to be reconstructed by a surgeon. Even with reconstruction, many athletes do not return to their prior level of performance, often ending their careers shortly after an ACL tear. Furthermore, the risk of osteoarthritis after an ACL tear, even with successful ACL reconstruction, is approximately 80 percent within 14 years. Murray, a Harvard researcher, has been working on an innovative solution that allows the torn ACL to heal itself by using a bridge or scaffold to hold blood products in between the two torn ends of the ACL long enough for surrounding cells to grow into and reunite the separated ends. In animal studies using Murray’s technique, not only does the ACL heal itself, but there is no resulting osteoarthritis. With support from the Football Players Health Study at Harvard, in addition to other funding, Dr. Murray has translated her technique from the laboratory and launched the first ever clinical trial with full approval from the Federal Drug Administration.
Jeffrey Karp, PhD
An Inflammation Responsive Hydrogel Depot for On-Demand Drug Delivery in Treatment of Posttraumatic Osteoarthritis (PTOA) in Football Players
Principal Investigators: Jeffrey Karp, PhD, Brigham and Women’s Hospital

Joerg Ermann, MD, Brigham and Women’s Hospital
Summary: The proposed study aims to develop a disease modifying, self-titrating and intra-articular therapy for the treatment of post-traumatic osteoarthritis (PTOA). This will involve the development of inflammation responsive hydrogels, for delivery of disease modifying agents. Such an autonomous and biologically driven disease modifying therapy may significantly impact the health of former, current and future football players, and other athletes, who are at significant risk of developing joint degenerative PTOA.
Conor Walsh, PhD
Protect-When-Needed (PWN) Knee Bracing Technology for Prevention of Knee Injuries in NFL Players using Soft Functional Materials
Principal Investigators: Conor Walsh, PhD, Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, and Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering

Ata Kiapour, PhD, Boston Children's Hospital, and Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering
Summary: The primary aim of this proposed work is to address a pressing unmet need in the NFL by demonstrating a new paradigm in protective wear. We propose to develop and evaluate Protect-When-Needed Knee Bracing Technology (PWN Bracing) that will provide adequate support to the knee joint, when required (high-risk events), without affecting normal performance levels and joint function during low-risk activities. This is based on our team’s deep expertise in soft functional materials and understanding of the mechanisms of injury and limitations of current technology in addressing these.
Perception and CommunicationResearch that examines best practices and effective communication to the player community.

Perception and Communication

Risk Communication About Injury in Football
Principal Investigator: Kasisomayajula Viswanath, PhD, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health
Summary: Participation in organized football presents both risks and benefits. In order to make a decision about whether or not to participate in organized football, individuals must accurately appraise the risk-related information and then weigh future health risks against current and future financial, psychological, physical, and social benefits. Given the complex, and in some case unknown, risks associated with football participation, the goal of this program of research is to create effective risk communication strategies that inform and empower individual athletes to make informed autonomous decisions related to beginning, continuing, or ceasing football participation.