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Concussions, Brain Envy, And Repairing The Damage In The NFL

Showtime's Erin Sharoni talks with Dr. Daniel Amen of the Amen Clinics about NFL-related concussions and how players' brains can actually heal even after they've been damaged.

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Joe Robbins

When Indianapolis Colts wide receiver Austin Collie was slow to get up from the turf at Heinz Field in August 2012 after absorbing what seemed to be a routine tackle, we fans assumed the worst.

The assumption turned out to be the diagnosis. Another concussion for Collie, his fourth in two years.

Collie's future with the Colts for 2013 does not look promising. He missed much of last season after tearing ligaments in his knee in the Colts Week Three loss to the Jaguars, but even before coming back to that game, he missed significant time while recovering from his preseason "ding." Several people, including myself, openly questioned the Colts for allowing Collie to return. Four concussions in two years is too much, and paying fans do not want to see concussion No. 5, which might be the hit Collie takes and never stands up from.

In the span of just six years, more evidence has been brought into the public spotlight that focuses on concussions, what they do to athletes who sustain them, and (most importantly) how they can be treated.

This is a topic fans seem to have conflicting emotions about. On the one hand, people do care for their favorite athletes. On the other, if concussions are as life-threatening as medical science suggests, how can American Football continue? Because of this conflict, many fans simply choose to ignore the issue. Ignorance is bliss, and the less we know about how this game is killing its players, the more fans can enjoy watching it with blinders on.

Recently, Erin Sharoni of Showtime and NBC Sports sat down and held a Spreecast with Dr. Daniel Amen of the Amen Clinics. Dr. Amen's work involves, among other things, examining former NFL players, scanning their brains, assessing the damage done, and (surprisingly) offering an interesting methodology in helping them heal their brains.

"The first thing that surprised me was the level of damage," Dr. Amen told Sharoni, when describing his first examinations of former players' brains. "I mean, I was expecting to see trouble; it was much worse than I thought."

"Our players had four times the level of depression that's in the general population."

In 60% of the players Dr. Amen worked with, the cerebellum - which is the back portion of the brain that handles coordination - simply "turned off." Because of repeated hits to the front portion of the head, sustained during playing football, it was damaging the cerebellum in the back.

"That may be one of the reasons that NFL careers are so short," Dr. Amen told Sharoni. "Getting hit in your frontal lobe a lot actually, over time, makes you less coordinated."

Hearing that NFL players have damaged brains post-football is nothing earth-shattering these days. What is revealing is the extent of the damage. Players like former Raider Wayne Hawkins went to Dr. Amen and was suffering from dementia. He was also morbidly obese. Anthony Davis, the Hall of Fame running back from USC, had the brain of an 85-year-old man when he first met Dr. Amen. Davis is 54 years old.

The suicides of Junior Seau, Andre Waters, and David Duerson in recent years - and the autopsy reports for Seau and Duerson following their deaths - are the higher profile stories that have pushed post-career concussion injuries to the forefront.

However, for me personally, it was not Amen's insight into the level of damage that was most revealing in his chat with Sharoni. It was the work he is reportedly doing in repairing damaged brains.

Amen told Sharoni that, at his clinics, he is taking NFL players with concussion-related brain injuries and making them better. The details of how are best laid out by Amen himself in the interview (which you can watch below), but a quick overview involves a plan that removes the patient from further activities that damage the brain (sports, drug use, drinking alcohol, etc.), exercise (many former players are obese), and natural supplements like a multivitamin, fish oil, and nutrients. Other brain-repairing actives include dancing. Learning or re-learning to dance is one way to, reportedly, repair a damaged cerebellum.

Amen also shows these former players something called "brain envy." He displays scans of their current brains, which appear damaged, and then outlines how they can become healthy again. Basically, here is your brain now, and here is where it can get if you follow this plan.

"Most people think that, 'Well, you hurt the brain and it doesn't recover.' That's really old thinking," Amen said in the interview.

This information might be interesting to the over 4,000 former-NFL players who are currently suing the NFL because of brain-inflicted trauma during their playing years. Now, before any of you hasty readers out there jump to conclusions and start saying that NFL players "know what they are getting into" when they strap on a helmet, take the time to read up on the lawsuit. Maybe even read this story about former Patriots linebacker Ted Johnson, or maybe this one about former Colts great Jeff Herrod. It's more complicated than you may think.

Going forward, it seems that following the work Dr. Amen is something to keep an eye on. It's fair to note that the NFL has moved in the right direction when it comes to addressing the issue of brain trauma. We've all seen the commercial with Tom Brady and the woman watering her front lawn and talking about her son, Ray Lewis. The point of contention is that it might not be enough.

Interesting side note, Lewis works with Dr. Amen and, according to Amen, Lewis sets aside time to sit in an oxygen chamber every time he "gets a ding." This is intriguing because Lewis is viewed as a symbol of NFL toughness. He's often called "old school." If he is this serious about keeping his brain healthy while playing - he's since retired after the Ravens won Super Bowl XLVII - what does that tell you about how seriously other current players view concussions?

Also, Lewis is a multimillion dollar NFL star, not a free agent rookie. He can afford trips to clinics, or perhaps his own personal oxygen chamber. What about the guy who can't? How does he heal his brain?

These are the questions many former players are raising in their lawsuit, among others.

The reality is football isn't going away, but the game and its players - both current and former - can be better taken care of. The question is how, and also how much - as in, how much money will billionaire NFL owners have to dish out to help the men who play the game.

"I have no illusion that football will go away," Amen told to Sharoni, "but look at the Super Bowl. [Super Bowl XLVII] was one of the best Super was exciting all the way to the end; there were no concussions. As we take the head out of this game, it can STILL be exciting...we don't need to have the thugs really take control over this game. Too often, the head has been used as a weapon, and there's not been any respect for it."

Nice job by Erin in the interview. You can watch it all below:

Reversing Concussion Damage, Dr. Amen- Erin Sharoni, Spreecast