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Six things ‘Concussion’ won’t tell you (but concussion experts will, including Dr. Moser)

Bennett Omalu (L) and actor Will Smith attend a special screening of "Concussion" in Westwood, California.

Source: Wall Street Journal – MarketWatch.

Dr. Omalu didn’t discover concussions, for starters

Recent release “Concussion” is the rare movie that agitates scientists and sports lovers alike.

The Sony Pictures Entertainment 6758, +1.00% movie follows protagonist Will Smith as he discovers a degenerative brain disease in a former National Football League player on his autopsy table.

Smith’s character, Nigerian-born Dr. Bennet Omalu, then must battle the powerful football league to share his findings with the public,

For sports lovers, the Christmas Day film from writer-director Peter Landesman has troubling implications for a major U.S. sport.

But many of half a dozen concussion experts interviewed by MarketWatch for this article were dismayed by the movie’s science, and concerned that viewers could walk away with inaccurate, and even damaging, information.

Here are six points about “Concussion” courtesy of concussion experts, not Hollywood:

‘Concussion’ isn’t about concussions

You might not have bought a movie ticket for “Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy,” but that is the actual syndrome at the heart of the movie: a brain disease found in patients with a history of repetitive hits to the head.

CTE is connected to concussions, true, but scientists don’t yet know the exact nature of the relationship between the two.

Dr. Omalu didn’t discover, or name, CTE

Scientists have known about this pattern of abnormal brain cells since the 1920s, when it was discovered in boxers, according to Dr. William Barr, director of neuropsychology at NYU Langone Medical Center.

The term CTE had also been used decades earlier.

Omalu’s discovery of the link with football was “significant... but he’s not the one who discovered the disease,” Barr said.

Even experts don’t know what turns a concussion into CTE

Years of exposure to hits to the head do appear to correlate with CTE diagnosis, said Dr. Jamshid Ghajar, a neurosurgery professor at Stanford School of Medicine and president of the Brain Trauma Foundation. But there is no causal relationship between the severity of a concussion or number of concussions and CTE, he said.

“We know many, many kids hit their heads playing sports. Why do some kids develop problems and some don’t?” asked Dr. Mark Herceg, director of Neuropsychology for the Brain Injury Unit at Burke Rehabilitation Hospital in White Plains, NY.

“That’s the Holy Grail in all of this.”

CTE has even been identified in non-concussed brains, and many retired football players don’t seem to have it, said Dr. Rosemarie Scolaro Moser, a neuropsychologist and the director of the Sports Concussion Center of New Jersey.

And there is even more concussion experts don’t know

“No one talks in the medical community about how much we don’t know,” Jessica Schwartz, a spokeswoman for the American Physical Therapy Association, said.

There isn’t even a consensus on what a concussion is, said Ghajar.

In the broadest definition, concussions can come from even minor-seeming hits. Schwartz herself has had eight or nine concussions, the most recent from a motor vehicle collision.

This doesn’t mean the end of youth sports.

All six concussion experts interviewed said we need to find better ways to keep child athletes safe—not end Little League.

Recently, Moser said she’s seen many high school athlete patients come in, worried about getting CTE to the point that it’s made them anxious, depressed and panicked. “That’s a side-effect of the movie we have to be vigilant about.”

“These athletes have had tens of thousands of hits and jolts to the head,” Moser said. “Your normal high school kid hasn’t had anywhere near as many.”

Ghajar agreed. “We all like sports. Sports aren’t going away.”

Instead, it’s about “preventing and detecting it properly, and then having therapy.”

Having a concussion won’t destroy your life.

Omalu only discovered the connection between CTE and football when doing an autopsy on former Pittsburgh Steelers player Mike Webster.

That, paired with high-profile football players’ suicides means “kids all over the country... think a concussion is a death sentence,” said Brooke de Lench, executive director of MomsTEAM Youth Sports Safety Institute.

But “bad brain cells don’t drive you to drink antifreeze or commit suicide,” Barr said. The movie is “acting like the pathology in the brain is what made them commit suicide. That’s silly. Suicide is a very complex human behavioral process.”

In fact, NFL players appear to be at lower risk for suicide than other men, according to some research.

Still, the functions a concussion impairs—cognition, thought, mood, balance and more—certainly make life more difficult, even “scary,” Schwartz said.

Getting a concussion is hardly good for your brain, of course. But having a concussion also doesn’t lead straight to Omalu’s autopsy table.

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