The Atlanta Falcons kick off their home opener Monday night. Falcons fans are ready to rise up at home. Some of what they love to cheer for is what researchers study - the lasting impact a concussion or repeated hit to the head has on a player.
CBS Atlanta traveled to Massachusetts to the NFL brain bank where former players donate their brains to be studied after death.
Dr. Robert Cantu is a renowned neurosurgeon who serves as a senior adviser for the NFL's Head, Neck and Spine committee.
"The most important thing is to recognize it (a concussion). The majority of concussions are still not recognized on athletic fields. You should remove them from practice or play and they should not be allowed to go back that day," Cantu said.
In 2009, the NFL changed its concussion policy to reduce the number of helmet-to-helmet hits. The league created a PSA campaign alerting people to the dangers of concussions and the league requires an informative poster be hung in each locker room.
The most significant change, according to Cantu, came in 2011, moving the kick off from the 30- to the 35-yard line.
"That's the most violent play in all of football because individuals are coming at full head of speed, often in opposite directions," Cantu said.
The changes come as new research emerges from the NFL Brain Bank at the VA Hospital in Bedford, MA. Neuropathologist Dr. Ann McKee studies the brains of deceased NFL players, looking for a neurodegenerative and debilitating disease called chronic traumatic encephalopathy. It's characterized by what's called a tau protein. The diagnosis can only be made after death.
"As the player ages, even if he doesn't have any more hits to the head, the disease in some people becomes very progressive and starts really taking over most of the brain. That's one of the curious features of this, there's a long, latent period between time a person ... experiences the head injuries. And they have to be repetitive head injuries, and there can be a period of years of doing well, and then there's this slow subtle deterioration," McKee said.
So far, out of 19 former NFL players' brains McKee that has studied, 18 were diagnosed with CTE. You can see the difference by looking at a stained slide of the brain. A brain with CTE shows up with brown deposits of the tau protein. A brain that exhibits no sign of brain trauma, or CTE, shows up clean.
Cantu believes the research being done is extremely important to the general population.
"We still really don't know the incidence of it. We don't know how prevalent it is. We just know it occurs and we don't know which group is most at risk to it, except that individuals that receive more brain trauma is at greater risk than those that receive less of it," Cantu said.
More than 500 people have signed up to be a part of the brain registry to donate their brain after death, including dozens of current NFL players, other professional athletes and members of the general public.
Copyright 2012 WGCL-TV (Meredith Corporation). All rights reserved.
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