In launching a $60 million research program aimed at improving diagnosis and treatment of traumatic brain injuries, the National Football League joined GE, a world leader in medical imaging.
The four-year Head Health Initiative, guided by healthcare experts, aims to improve athlete concussion safety with innovations that could be used by soldiers as well as in society.
Part of the program in conjunction with sportswear maker Under Armour includes an innovation challenge program to start late this year with investments of up to $20 million for research and technology to better understand, diagnose and protect against brain injuries.
"Our knowledge of the brain is far behind that of nearly every other organ," GE chairman Jeff Immelt said. "With this initiative, we will advance our research and apply our learning to sports-related concussions, brain injuries suffered by members of the military and neurodegenerative diseases."
The NFL has worked to reduce concussions and their impact on players by tougher penalties for blows to the head and mandatory evaluations before those hurt can return to the field after complaints from present and former players.
"The NFL has made tremendous progress in making the game safer and more exciting. But we know we have more work to do," NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said.
"The launch of the innovation challenges puts us on an accelerated path to progress with experienced scientists, academics and entrepreneurs dedicated to developing game-changing technologies that will benefit athletes, the military and all members of society."
The move comes seven weeks after the family of former 20-season NFL star linebacker Junior Seau filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the league for not doing more to protect players from head injuries.
Seau died last May aged 43 after shooting himself. Post-mortem tests showed he suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy as a result of concussions and other blows to the head taken during his career.
"The NFL was aware of the evidence and risks associated with repetitive traumatic brain injuries for many decades, but deliberately ignored and actively concealed the information from the players," the lawsuit claimed.
Dozens of federal lawsuits filed by more than 3,700 former NFL players claim league officials ignored evidence about the long-term impact of repeated blows to the head, leading to long-term debilitating health issues for players.
"The NFL refused to acknowledge that chronic brain damage in former NFL football players was an epidemic that constituted a national health crisis," a lawsuit filed by former Chicago Bears defensive back Shaun Gayle said.
The NFL denied hiding information or misleading players, cited its work on better protection against head injuries at the youth level and has noted a $30 million research grant to the National Institutes of Health.
"The NFL has long made player safety a priority and continues to do so," the league said in a statement when the Seau suit was filed.
"Any allegation that the NFL intentionally sought to mislead players has no merit. It stands in contrast to the league's actions to better protect players and advance the science and medical understanding of the management and treatment of concussions."
To that end comes the new initiatives with GE, including a research project using MRI exams of the brain to determine biomarkers for potential diagnosis, outcome prediction, and therapy management for patients with mild traumatic brain injury.
The Head Health Challenge offers millions of dollars for ideas that speed solutions for brain protection, including ideas for new materials that can blunt the damaging effects of blows or track the damage caused to the brain by head impacts in real time.