Dementia pugilistica, dementia that boxers can develop from repeated blows to the head during their careers, had been documented in medical literature for at least two centuries. There were concerns among some prominent brain scientists about the possible damaging effects of repeated concussions to football players, but NFL-sponsored research pointed to the opposite.
In 2002, Mike Webster's (a.k.a. Iron Mike) corpse ended up at the Allegheny County morgue in Pittsburgh as a result of accidental death. Neuropathologist Dr. Bennett Omalu performed the autopsy. And brain being his specialty, decided to preserve Webster's brain for further evaluation.
Dr. Bennett Omalu wasn't familiar with football as a pastime, but as an outsider he reasoned that the blows to the head that football players received didn't seem that different from those that boxers did. As he would learn later, he was far off in that regard; depending on defensive position played, football players receive blows with forces ranging between 30g to 120g!!!
Since Dr. Omalu was indulging his own curiosity, he asked a tech friend to run a battery of tests with markers for common neurodegenerative diseases on slices of Webster's brain, and lo and behold, there was a high buildup of tau proteins, a sign of brain damage similar to the ones observed in the brains of boxers with dementia pugilistica.
Dr. Omalu published his findings in the journal Neurology from the American Association of Neurology in 2005. He coined the term CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy) for the damage he found in the brain. Soon after the report was published, prominent doctors with ties to the NFL demanded a retraction. And that's when Dr. Omalu's nightmare as a scientist truly started for he became ostracized and nothing short of dismissed for his findings.
Over the following years, Dr. Omalu found more cases of CTE in brains of dead football players, and kept reporting them, and the NFL kept denying the negative effects of repeated concussions to the brain. Studies reported a 19% more incidence of Alzheimer's disease among retired football players than in the overall population.
In the last few years, families of football players have joined in a collective lawsuit against the NFL for wrongful deaths.
Concussion by Jeanne Marie Laskas is part memoir, part chronicle of a discovery and its aftermath. In the first few chapters we get to know Dr. Omalu from childhood in Nigeria, his dreams, and his shortcomings, until he becomes a doctor and eventually travels to the US with a student visa for a medical fellowship. Then, after specializing in neuropathology in NY, he ends up in Pittsburgh as a sidekick to world famous forensic pathologist Dr. Cyril H. Wecht, and the rest is history.
Concussion is a provocative reading on many fronts; it speaks openly about race and discrimination as Dr. Omalu has experienced them. It denounces front and center the manipulations of the NFL to keep Congress, the public, and particularly active and former football players from finding out the brain damaging effects that derive from playing football on a regular basis. It speaks of how scientific research may be corrupted when is sponsored by organizations related to the field of inquiry.
You don't have to be a football buff to read this book, though it helps to recognize some famous cases, or have a medical background to understand and appreciate this book, and that is ultimately why the public should read it.
DISCLAIMER: I received from the publisher a free Galley of this book via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.