The NFL Concussion Pill: A Potential Cure For Brain Injuries?

Despite being the most lucrative professional sports league in America, the NFL remains bogged down by a seemingly endless stream of news reports about former football greats being diagnosed with brain disease, or current players like New England quarterback Tom Brady allegedly suffering unreported concussions.

That’s why the NFL is exploring a wide range of options to help combat the widespread issue of concussions and long-term brain injuries. Now comes word that recent medical research could result in a concussion pill providing immediate relief and even repairing brain damage as early as the year 2025.

Concussion Pill Options for NFL Players

According to Mike Tanier of the Bleacher Report, two teams of researchers are offering the clearest look at how a concussion pill might work in the future. Although the research is still in the “mouse model” phase, experiments on the rodents have shown promise.

Dr. William Korinek, the CEO of Astrocyte Pharmaceuticals, is focusing on astrocyte cells in the brain. These cells were initially thought to be insulators for the brain’s neurons but may play an important role in taking care of the brain.

“It’s the astrocytes that are helping clear away the signal to make sure it keeps functioning well,” Korinek told Bleacher Report. “It’s turning over or pruning 20 percent of the synapses at all times.”

Astrocytes work to help treat concussions but can be overwhelmed by repeated blows to the head. Korinek looked at how concussions affect the sociability of mice by conducting a social interaction test using three chambers. He found mice with traumatic brain injuries (TBIs) were less interested in other mice than those without brain injuries.

“They may check out the other mouse, but they end up spending equal amounts of time between the two chambers,” Dr. Korinek said. “They don’t have the same curiosity or interaction that you see in a normal mouse who has not been injured.”

Antisocial behavior has been seen in NFL players who experienced TBIs as well. NFL linebacker Junior Seau suffered from sleep disorders and exhibited antisocial behavior before committing suicide in May 2012. His brain autopsy revealed chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).

Korinek developed a medication that helped the mice overcome the antisocial behavior when treated within a half hour of their concussions. They didn’t have any of the same symptoms when they were older as the mice that suffered brain injuries but were not treated.

Dr. Kun Ping Lu, a professor of medicine at Harvard University, is also working on medication that could be given to players after concussions. But instead of targeting astrocyte cells, Lu is looking at an antibody that may help the brain heal itself.

One of Lu’s experiments with mice suffering from TBIs saw the rodents become less risk-averse. During his research, he discovered a toxic protein prevalent in damaged brains. So he created an antibody that stops the toxic protein from ravaging the brain.

“Think of it like the police,” Dr. Lu said. “The toxic proteins are the bad guys. The antibody can arrest them and not allow them to do damage to the brain.”

Translating results in mice to humans becomes significantly more complicated, with no guarantee that it will even work in the more complex human brain. But Lu says he hopes a pill will be available in 10 years. Korinek is even more optimistic in his research and says a pill may be coming as soon as 2025 “if all goes as well.”

Marijuana Another Viable Treatment for CTE

This isn’t the first time people were talking about the possibility of using a pill to treat brain injuries.

Last year, the University of Miami started a five-year study funded by a $16 million research grant to explore whether a pill could solve the growing concussion problem.

“The implications for the study are extraordinary,” said Michael Hoffer, professor of otolaryngology at the Miller School of Medicine. “To have such a large team of multidisciplinary neuroscience experts attaching themselves to research that could change the outcome of TBI and concussion care is the opportunity researchers have been looking for to curb the growing trend of concussion.”

The study will look at how compounds found in cannabis could trigger a cellular repair mechanism in the brain while another chemical could help prevent the cells from being depleted of energy.

“What that pill would do is stabilize the brain, so that when you get a head injury, there may only be a few brain cells that are injured to the point of no return,” Hoffer told The Atlantic in 2016. “There are a lot of brain cells at risk right around those cells. If we can stabilize those, we can prevent the dominos from falling.”

Several NFL players have explored the option of using marijuana to treat injuries. The legality of marijuana and league policies make using marijuana as a form of medication complicated, but former players like Nate Jackson and Eugene Monroe have been advocates for its use.

“I played six years,” Jackson said to Bleacher Report. “Chances are that my brain has been altered by the game. But I am not feeling symptomatic. Why am I not? If I do, when will it happen? Did the cannabis I used when I was playing help protect my brain? Is it helping me now? A lot of us say it is helping, but that’s just our hunches. We don’t know for sure.”

In a recent interview with Rolling Stone, Monroe downplayed whether marijuana has helped him overcome symptoms of brain injuries but insisted that it has helped with pain management.

NFL Players Desperate for Concussion Therapies

In one of the most alarming studies of the effects of concussions on the brains of football players, a neuropathologist recently found that the brains of 110 of 111 NFL players were found to have CTE.

With each study, the magnitude of brain injuries in football becomes bigger and clearer. That also means players are becoming more desperate for solutions and prone to false or ineffective treatments.

“Football players have fallen prey to all kinds of silly science,” Jackson said. “Snake-oil salesmen, not just with medicine but with business practices, all of that stuff. We have a very bad real-world sense. We’ve been coddled. We tend to not look really skeptically at people when they offer to help us.”

Science still has a long way to go until a magic pill can help combat the long-term effects of concussion, but all the avenues currently being explored make it more likely a solution will come.

“You need a lot of shots on goal in this space,” Dr. Korinek said to Bleacher Report.