Concussion by Jeanne Marie Laskas (♦♦♦♦)

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.

Comments

  1. Interesting. It's good to see this problem getting some well-deserved attention.

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    1. Indeed is a problem that needs to be addressed.

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    1. It is, and is soon to be a motion picture starring Will Smith as Dr. Omalu.

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  3. Again, thank you, thank you for recommending this to me!! It's my favorite nonfiction of 2015 and I'll be posting my review on Tuesday or Weds. Such a fantastic book and I think it will have broad appeal beyond football fans (obviously the movie will help too).

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    1. You're welcome, Sarah! I thought you would enjoy it. I'll be reading your review.
      Hopefully it will click with the general public; it really deserves to be noticed. I'm planning to see the movie. Let's hope is as good as the book.

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  4. Carmen, I found your blog through Sarah; she recommended Concussion to me (after hearing about it from you - ha!), since she knows how much I love football and I've been participating in Nonfiction November. I'm not quite finished with it, but it has been absolutely incredible, thus far. I'm so glad you two passed this one along to me and great review!

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    1. I'm glad Sarah recommended it to you knowing that you would like it, and that thus far you have enjoyed it. It really is very easy to read and quite an eye opener. I hope it gets the notice it deserves; at least to spark the conversation about concussions.

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  5. Good review Carmen. I think it's really important and the movie should send out big waves about this to the public. I admit I'm a football fan but I too worry about the damaging effects to these players.

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    1. Thanks, Susan.
      Some of the players claim that they play the game for the love but with previous knowledge before they started about the possible damages, but I refuse to think that players may have the full picture because whatever millions they make during their lives as athletes don't compensate being brain damaged after retirement at forty or so years of age.

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  6. Haven't seen a blog post from you in a couple weeks. Are you taking a break? Is all OK? Just checking up on you as a return favor-:)

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    1. Thanks, Judy. No, I'm not taking a break. It's that I'm reading a 500+ pages book and I'm advancing really slowly; the other two books that I tried didn't click so I guess it's this one for now. Also I've watched several movies that haven't motivated me to write a post, so you could say I have writer's block, or something like it.

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    2. No worries. It happens. Sometimes just reading is good.

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