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‘Concussion’ Doctor Speaks Truth to Power, Backed by Science

Dr. Bennett Omalu, who linked brain damage to football injuries, headlines Drexel neuroscience conference in Atlantic City

concussion
Credit: John O'Boyle
Dr. Bennet Omalu (left), who discovered Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) and Dr. Erol Veznedaroglu, director of Drexel Neurosciences Institute in Philadelphia

The 2002 autopsy of former pro football player Mike Webster changed Dr. Bennett Omalu’s life. But the disease he discovered inside the 50-year-old’s brain -- which he named Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy -- has sparked a revolution.

A growing awareness of CTE has started to change how doctors diagnose and treat brain injuries in patients of all ages. More and more evidence shows the long-term damage caused by repeated blows to the head, and this knowledge has begun to shape how athletes at all levels protect their skulls. It has even affected how the public feels about the violent sports that are so deeply rooted in our American culture.

In New Jersey, lawmakers have in recent years sought new ways to protect student athletes. A measure proposed last year would require a medical evaluation before students could return to school after suffering a concussion. A bill this year calls on the state to provide more education and screenings to children under their care.

Omalu has even inspired a full-scale Hollywood movie. Will Smith stars as Omalu in the 2015 picture “Concussion,” a dramatic re-telling of the discovery and bitter battle waged by the National Football League, the scientific establishment and others to discredit his findings on CTE, a degenerative brain disease that leads to memory loss, impaired judgment, depression, and eventually dementia.

The discovery has also made Omalu a popular guest on the lecture circuit. Dr. Erol Veznedaroglu, a nationally acclaimed neurosurgeon and director of Drexel Neurosciences Institute, in Philadelphia, thought he would be the perfect keynote speaker for the Institute’s first official conference, set to kick off Wednesday evening in Atlantic City.

“Oftentimes the truth isn’t convenient,” Veznedaroglu said Wednesday. “The medical community needs to be challenged.”

Omalu insists it is not about him; if it was, he would have played himself in the film, he joked. His motivation is the promise he made to “Mike” -- a promise he made to all those who ended up on the autopsy table at the Allegheny County Medical Examiner’s Office in Pittsburgh: To use science to find the truth about their death and to share those results with the powers that be.

“I promised myself I would get to the bottom of this. I said, ‘Mike, let us take a journey,’” Omalu recalled Wednesday. “Science seeks the truth. And there is only one truth.”

The truth about Webster, who played most of his 14-year career with the Pittsburgh Steelers and ended up broke, homeless, and suffering from dementia, didn’t reveal itself immediately. Webster was only 50 when he died, but his scarred and broken body looked like that of a 70-year-old, and slides of his brain revealed unusual proteins and tangled threads that didn’t belong, according an interview Omalu gave to PBS’s Frontline.

Omalu went on to diagnose the same condition in eight other deceased NFL players; he then discovered it in military veterans who suffered from PTSD, as well as professional wrestlers. These discoveries led him to be challenged by peers, ridiculed by the NFL and others, and accused of practicing “voodoo” science. But Omalu, a dedicated Christian who has since started his own foundation, considered it an act of faith to pursue the truth and make it public.

Veznedaroglu said that dedication and willingness to challenge the authority of a powerful entity like the NFL are qualities that made Omalu the right fit for the conference, which features speakers on Alzheimer’s, concussion, neuro-oncology, Parkinson’s, stroke, and more. As Veznedaroglu described it, the Drexel institute shares Omalu’s interest in using science to challenge existing assumptions and to provide a sense of justice for brain injury patients.

“What he’s done needs to be done on a much larger level,” Veznedaroglu said. “The medical community is unbelievably powerful, but we have not done a good job in the last couple decades of being able to innovate.”

Veznedaroglu’s program is a bit of an outsider itself, as he described it. “We were on the fringe,” he recalled, operating for roughly five years as an independent entity, Global Neurosciences Institute, until joining forces in 2015 with Drexel College of Medicine to create the .

The Drexel institute is designed to bring together all the specialists needed to fully treat a patient with serious brain injuries, he said. “Everything is together under one umbrella to help patients, to help families cope with these devastating diseases,” he said.

According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, emergency departments treat roughly 2.5 million brain injury patients each year -- including 12,000 to 15,000 from New Jersey. Roughly 40 percent of these injuries result from falls, and another 40 percent from car accidents or various assaults. A smaller, but growing, percentage comes from sports injuries. In 2009, nearly 250,000 children nationwide were treated for head trauma.

Omalu’s work – bolstered by the movie – has contributed to a growing number of local and national efforts to reduce brain injuries when possible, especially in sports. U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ) has led a roundtable discussion on the issue in Congress and has called for formal hearings, scheduled for Friday, that are expected to include several parents, college-level coaches, and medical and safety sports experts. He has also called on youth sports leagues to do more to protect young athletes.

In New Jersey, Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto (D-Hudson) has joined a handful of other Democrats on a bill that would prompt the Department of Children and Families to create a brain-injury screening and education program. The bill (A-1990) targets children in juvenile jails, psychiatric facilities, and other state programs, but doesn’t exclude other young people from the program.

New Jersey created a Commission on Brain Injury Research in 2004 to study the problem and help search for a cure for a disease that plagues some 175,000 residents. The commission has dispensed tens of millions of dollars in grants over the years and helps the Department of Health maintain a registry of all brain injuries.

While a number of Garden State patients travel to Philadelphia to visit the Drexel institute, the group also works with private-practice doctors in New Jersey and is connected with Our Lady of Lourdes Medical Center in Camden. Veznedaroglu’s previous partnership with Capital Health Regional Medical Center in Trenton fell apart in December when Capital Health System filed a federal lawsuit accusing Veznedaroglu of using them to build his own practice at Global, among other things.

A spokeswoman for Veznedaroglu said his neuroscience team no longer works with Capital. The doctor has challenged the lawsuit in court as without merit and asked a judge to dismiss the charges, she said.

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