Doctors Could Use Cannabis To Treat Athletes With Brain Injuries

The National Football League takes a dim view of cannabis use, with many arguing player punishments are excessive compared to those who commit much more serious offences.

A professor of Organizational Behaviour and Sports Law thinks the league should actually embrace cannabis - for medical purposes at least.

The reason: marijuana can reduce side-effects and even cure common traumatic brain injuries that can lead to Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), argues Dr. Jason Belzer in a recent article for Forbes.

CTE is a silent condition that afflicts many professional athletes. In Sept. 2014, PBS' Frontline reported that America's largest brain bank tested 79 deceased NFL players and found that 76 showed symptoms of CTE. Notable players diagnosed with the condition include Mike Webster, Junior Seau and Jovan Belcher.

Brain Injuries Commonplace in Hockey And Wrestling Too

But CTE isn't limited to football players. It's been observed in National Hockey League players, including Derek Boogaard and Steve Montador. And it's afflicted professional wrestlers such as Chris Benoit, whose 40-year-old brain was likened to that of an elderly Alzheimer's patient in his autopsy report.

Symptoms aren't always apparent, so athletes mightn't notice the brain decay that occurs at the onset of CTE.

"Eventually, the lobes of the brain blacken and loose [sic] density - causing depression, early on-set dementia, Parkinson's disease, and eventually death," says Belzer.

Of the players listed above, the oldest is Webster, who died at age 50. But CTE doesn't merely shorten a player's life expectancy. It's been linked to the suicide of Seau and the drug overdose of Boogaard. And it may have contributed to murder-suicide cases involving Belcher and Benoit.

Two Decades Of Research Support Cannabis Use

But cannabis may be the key to prevent such tragedies from recurring. Belzer cites two decades' worth of research suggesting that cannabis could potentially be used both as a cure and as preventative treatment for CTE:

  • In 1998, he says a National Institute of Health study showed that marijuana's two main psycho-active ingredients, Cannabidiol (CBD) and Delta-9 Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), had "neuro-protective" qualities.
  • In 2008, a Spanish study revealed that THC-receptors in the brain are involved in the healing process after someone sustains a brain injury.
  • Most recently, the National Institute of Health discovered that THC decreases the death rate of people who have "sustained brain trauma."

But the Big Four would have to change their policies in order to accommodate cannabis research and therapy. Marijuana is strictly prohibited in the NFL, MLB, and NBA. Meanwhile, cannabis is at least frowned upon among NHL executives.

Given that state of affairs, it's unlikely that cannabis would move anytime soon from the leagues' banned-substance lists to the rehabilitation facilities in each locker room.

h/t CNN, Forbes, Denver Post, Yahoo Sports, National Post, PBS

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