University of Chicago Neuroscientist Reacts to ‘Concussion’ Movie

The new Will Smith movie "Concussion" focuses on the true story of a Nigerian-born doctor who identified the now well-known condition chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE. The degenerative brain disease was first identified in a retired NFL player who took his own life, and the film shows the intense pushback to Dr. Bennet Omalu's discovery.

While the film has received mixed reviews from movie critics, Peggy Mason, a professor of neurobiology at the University of Chicago, is more concerned with the science behind the story than whether it's an Oscar contender.

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Mason joins us to discuss her thoughts on the film and to shed light on the dangers associated with traumatic brain injuries.

Watch the film trailer for "Concussion" below.

"Chicago Tonight" on Monday afternoon spoke with Mason by phone. Below, some highlights from our discussion.

What was your overall reaction to the movie?

“I liked it a lot. I think it does a very good job of painting the picture where, going into it, we had a disease called dementia pugilistica. This is what boxers got and, because it was called dementia pugilistica, it was a problem for other people. And what Omalu did, by single-handedly—and with great determination—figuring out that head trauma of a sort that happens all the time in the NFL and other forms of football is leading to a neurodegenerative disease of the brain, and because concussions and head trauma and brain injuries happen all the time to all of us, he brought the whole disease into our homes—because our children play soccer, because we go biking, because we slip on the ice in the Chicago winter.

“He named the disease beautifully, in my opinion: chronic traumatic encephalopathy. It takes away the linguistic crutch that this is only something for pugilists. It says that this is something that happens by chronic trauma to the brain that happens to all of us, whether we play football or not. I think it’s so, so important and I really commend Omalu for having the wherewithal to stick to his guns and follow his path.”

Do you think the average person understands that brain trauma isn’t just something that happens to NFL players?

“I think parents of children who play sports have an understanding of this. Soccer is played by so many kids these days. Not in proportion—but in numbers—it’s the leading sport for the number of concussions that happen. But it’s also a problem for the general public and when I think about what faces the average person trying to think about head injuries, I’m very sympathetic to the confusion that people think we know more than we really do. I guess you could say I’m really appalled at the level of confidence that medical professionals use in making statements about head injuries when, in fact, we don’t know the answer to many fundamental questions, such as why some people develop CTE and others appear not to."

(Courtesy of Boston University Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy)(Courtesy of Boston University Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy)

Dr. Omalu says children under 18 shouldn’t play football. Dr. Julian Bailes in a recent Chicago Tribune interview disagrees. What do you think?

“I think both should say, ‘I don’t know.’ I have a lot of respect for both Omalu and Bailes, I just don’t agree with either one of them. The right answer is, ‘We don’t know.’ The message should be to empower people to make their own decisions and let them know that the science behind this is pretty simple, and it’s available, and it can be assimilated, and they can then make their own decisions, while weighing their risk tolerance with the great benefits of sports.

"I thought there are a few facts that are useful to know, such as that the head doesn’t actually have to hit another object in order to cause pretty severe brain injury. Within the skull, the brain can bump into the skull and that causes an injury. You don’t actually have to bump into another head or into the ground, just whip in one direction and whip back, and that will do it."

How effective are helmets in preventing head injuries during contact sports?

"Helmets are useful against linear forces, but are not useful for rotational forces. And it’s rotational forces—these rotations as the head whips around not in a line but in a circle—that are thought to be most responsible for tearing up the white matter. Tearing up white matter is really what we want to avoid. It’s hard to rebuild it, and in fact there’s not much evidence that it does get rebuilt. What happens is instead of sending messages by highway, you’re sending them through city streets. Everything is going to be slower and a helmet doesn’t do anything for that. So these rotational forces are really the big problem."

While Mason said that traumatic brain injuries can happen to anybody, she acknowledged that, because football is a sport based on collisions, the risks are even higher for football players.

Below, a scene from the 2013 PBS Frontline documentary “League of Denial: Inside the NFL’s Concussion Crisis” features Omalu’s discovery of CTE during an autopsy of former Pittsburgh Steelers NFL Hall of Fame center “Iron Mike” Webster.

To watch “League of Denial” online in its entirety, click here.

Frontline also offers an online “Concussion Watch” that tracks all officially reported NFL head injuries according to NFL players, teams, positions and seasons. According to the study, there have been 166 concussions suffered by NFL players to date in 2015.

Related "Chicago Tonight" Stories:

The NFL’s "League of Denial"

FRONTLINE’s documentary, “League of Denial: Inside the NFL’s Concussion Crisis,” explores whether the NFL put players at risk by denying the relation between concussions and long-term health issues. Our panel tackles the question of football safety at all levels.

Sports and Brain Injury

We speak with DePaul University professor Dorothy Kozlowski about the risk of traumatic brain injury while playing contact sports and the possible long-term health impacts.

Head-On Collision

Could a better helmet hold the key to reducing the epidemic of sports-related brain injuries? “Chicago Tonight” talks with a team of university researchers who said that it’s time for a new design.  

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