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    How Brain Specialists Watch Football

    "As a neurologist, I can't help but cringe," says one. But even doctors who see the worst results of the game say they tune in on Sundays.

    The Neurosurgeon David Frim, Chief, Section of Neurosurgery, University of Chicago Medicine

    I grew up in Boston and started watching the Patriots when they were 2-14 every year, but now it’s more fun, because they’re doing a little better. I catch the Patriots games when they’re on TV and I go to call my mother and talk about the game.

    It’s a dangerous game and there’s a lot of injuries for sure. I guess they talk about more on TV now but certainly I’ve always been aware of it.

    It used to be that kids would come in every so often when they got knocked out. They would come in with their mom and they just wanted to get cleared and get out to play because that’s what their coach said they should do. Now they come in with their mother and father and ask, "Do we really want to play football anymore? What are the risks?" Especially for kids who are academically gifted, their parents ask, "Is it worth it? Is this going to affect his schoolwork and how they feel emotionally?"

    I tell parents all the time there are neurosurgically unfriendly and friendly sports. For example, soccer is a neurosurgically unfriendly sport. Women’s soccer at the collegiate level accounts for as many concussions as football.

    For me, brain injuries in football have always been a concern. I remember watching the game when Darryl Stingley became a quadriplegic. There was also a Boston University hockey player who was knocked out on the ice. I remember watching as he was being resuscitated on national television. He ended up a quadriplegic.

    I think kids should play sports, though. I was a collegiate track runner and it was formative in my development and my ability to discipline myself. I always did better in school when it was track season, having to go to organized practice, and I think that’s probably true for a lot of athletes.

    The ICU Doctor Andrew Naidech, Director of the Neuro ICU, Northwestern Memorial Hospital

    I grew up a stalwart hockey and football fan. I find now that when you see the big hits that everyone used to think of as just plain rough-housing fun, I cringe.

    I’m a little bit afraid of what we'll learn about football next. What I’m afraid of is that now that we know, for example, that the more soccer players head the ball, the more trouble they have with depression and cognition later on. If those are the consequences of heading the ball in soccer, who knows what the consequences are of being repeatedly hit in the head in football.

    It’s conceivable that one day I won’t be able to watch football. It depends on what we learn in the future. I hope when we learn more we'll take the appropriate steps to take the risk out of the game.

    I think the NFL has taken steps to make the sure the game is played more safely.

    At work, we sometimes talk about football but I don’t think those conversations have changed. They tend to be more strategic talk about how which team is doing better in their division. Other doctors may talk about it differently, but I’m a neurologist and we tend to be strategic.

    The Psychiatrist Kostas Lyketsos, Elizabeth Plank Althouse Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences and Vice Chair of Psychiatry, Johns Hopkins Medicine

    I’m a big football fan because I’m from a town where the Baltimore Ravens play.

    I still watch football about the same amount as I used to. I’ve always felt the same way: Football is a very rough sport and people are going to get hurt, so I haven't changed since starting to study my new interest [Lyketsos serves on the NFL Players Association Mackey-White Mild Traumatic Brain Injury Committee]. I do still worry about these men who get very banged up. On the other hand, I know some of them, and they think of themselves as modern-day warriors, grown men making a conscious decision to play.

    I can’t say I ever really cheered for the big hits.

    At work, I wouldn’t say we talk about football and brain injuries a lot. I talk about football with my friends. When we do talk about it at work, it’s more of a scientific context.

    The Professor Paul Schulz, Associate Professor of Neurology at the University of Texas Houston Medical School at Houston

    I go to a game every couple of years and watch on a semi-regular basis.

    I was at a meeting one or two months ago and a neuropathologist from Boston University showed life-sized slides from brains of several football players who had passed away. You can actually see damage — you didn’t even need a microscope. One of those things that really struck me was she actually had another person who played high school football and was killed in a motorcycle accident. His family donated his brain as a control [for her study] and it turned out that he already had changes to his brain that were visible and he only had played in high school.

    I have patients now that are former football players that have dementia and you have to wonder if some of it came from the bumps they got on their head 30 and 40 years ago.

    I watched the game last Sunday and saw one guy hit the other guy pretty hard and [the second guy] didn’t get up right away. You could see that he “had his bell rung” and I thought, "Oh my goodness." I guess what was striking to me was after all that talk we’ve done about the need to protect our heads and despite the good helmets that we’ve got, I would have thought folks would have started modifying their behavior and saying, "Until we make this safer we shouldn’t hit each other in the head so hard."

    I’ve been around long enough that I know we have to make baby steps on projects like these, but I know we have to have more conversations about it.

    It’s a great sport, a lot of strategy, but gosh, I would hope the message will get out to play the game in a safe way so we can all enjoy it.

    We don't put our work stuff aside while we're watching the game, so when I’m seeing the game I’m enjoying the game. But when I see one of those big hits, as a neurologist, I can't help but cringe.