hiawatha bray | tech lab

Harvard wants your help studying football concussions

I’m a pro football fan, but for how much longer? It’s not easy cheering for a sport that often wrecks the brains and bodies of the players. So I’m glad to help make the game a bit safer, by running an app on my iPhone.

The TeamStudy app was developed at Harvard University and financed by the National Football League Players Association, which is spending more than $25 million to help Harvard’s researchers study health effects of the game.

About 3,000 players have signed up for the Football Players Health Study, making it the biggest such study of former NFL athletes ever attempted.


At Harvard, scientists are designing new kinds of athletic knee braces, new surgical procedures for repairing torn ligaments, and even a way of using infrared light to treat concussions. But they’re especially eager to track the everyday health of former players. The TeamStudy app lets the user perform simple tests to measure mental alertness, physical mobility, and the condition of the heart.

And the Harvard researchers want the rest of us to join the team. By persuading thousands of ordinary people to run the app, along with veteran athletes, the scientists plan to build a vast national database that could someday make the players healthier — and us, too.

Alvaro Pascual-Leone, the cognitive neurologist who’s leading the TeamStudy project, is appalled by the devastating brain injuries football players suffer. But he’s also a fan who hopes to make the sport safer.

There’s a lot of that going on around here.

Boston University set up the world’s first research center dedicated to chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a brain disease frequently caused by head injuries in sports.

And a Boston startup called SyncThink just got approval from the Food and Drug Administration for a virtual reality headset that can tell in 60 seconds whether an athlete has suffered a concussion.


Harvard itself has multiple efforts underway to study the effects of playing football on an athlete’s health.

Football can damage every part of the body, so Harvard’s TeamStudy tracks all sorts of conditions, including how well a person can walk and the condition of the heart.

“I don’t know exactly what we’ll find,” said a former New England Patriots linebacker, Steve DeOssie, who began beta-testing the app six months ago. “We’re not trying to prove anything. We’re trying to show everything.”

Steve DeOssie, a player advisor for the study, spent 11 seasons in the NFL as a linebacker and long snapper for the Dallas Cowboys, New York Giants, New York Jets, and New England Patriots.
Steve DeOssie, a player advisor for the study, spent 11 seasons in the NFL as a linebacker and long snapper for the Dallas Cowboys, New York Giants, New York Jets, and New England Patriots. (The Football Players Health Study at Harvard University)

But you can’t understand the physical effects of the game by studying only the players. For instance, DeOssie is often sore in the morning, but so are many other 53-year-olds. “I don’t know how much of it is wear and tear from football and how much of it is getting older,” he said.

That’s where we come in.

Pascual-Leone wants thousands of us to take the same tests he’s giving the NFL players. That way, scientists can find out whether aging NFL stars are deteriorating faster than, say, burned-out journalists.

It’s a painless process. After I filled out an introductory questionnaire, TeamStudy put me through a few simple challenges. For instance, the app asks you to type the answer to a simple question. You’re not graded on the answer itself. TeamStudy wants to see how fast you type and how many typos you make, as a way of measuring your dexterity and clarity of mind.


In another test, you’re asked to walk normally for 45 seconds, with the phone in your pocket. The phone’s motion sensor measures how smoothly you walk and how much ground you cover. Then you’re asked to do it again, while doing a simple arithmetic problem in your head. I can walk and count at the same time, but just barely.

Performing the TeamStudy tests will require only 20 minutes per week. Over time, the Harvard squad will compile performance profiles on non-athletes and former athletes alike, and learn to distinguish the lingering effects of sports injuries from the normal decay of aging.

All the collected data are transmitted to the Harvard team — anonymized, to protect the user’s privacy. And if enough of us participate, the results could lead to better health care for people who’ve only sacked quarterbacks in their dreams.

Here’s the part where I’m supposed to warn of dire threats to our privacy. Only I won’t, because I don’t see any; TeamStudy vows to preserve its users’ anonymity. Indeed, I’m hoping the Harvard study sets a new standard for medical research, by helping to make lab rats of us all.

TeamStudy’s biggest weakness is that too few people can use it. The software is based on Apple Inc.’s ResearchKit, a medical research tool that runs only on iOS devices like the iPhone and Apple Watch. Since Apple launched ResearchKit last year, about two dozen apps have used it, helping patients track ailments like diabetes and hepatitis.


But millions of people, including those who can only afford cheap smartphones running Alphabet Inc.’s Android software, won’t be able to participate.

To Apple’s credit, ResearchKit can be freely modified to run on other devices. Gearheads at Cornell University are cobbling together an Android version right now. Then, almost anybody with a smartphone could become a medical researcher in his spare time, with vast benefits for us all.

TeamStudy might help save the NFL, and a lot more.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @GlobeTechLab.