By Jonathan Allen
NEW YORK (Reuters) - The National Football League and General Electric Co are teaming up to improve the diagnosis and treatment of brain injuries amid growing concerns about sports-related concussions in youth and professional sports.
On Monday they announced a $60 million effort with leading neurologists to speed up research into brain injuries and the development of new technologies to help protect the brain from traumatic injury to benefit athletes, the military and the broader public.
The initiative includes a $40 million research program into imaging technologies to improve diagnoses and an additional $20 million pool of funds open to researchers and businesses trying to improve the prevention, identification and management of brain injuries.
"We're trying to do this with the best minds anywhere in the world," GE's chairman and CEO, Jeff Immelt, told a news conference in Fairfield, Connecticut, on Monday.
Americans are increasingly worried about brain injuries suffered by children and adolescents playing sports.
Among the lawsuits filed against the NFL over concussions is a class action on behalf of 4,000 former professional football players and their wives, which accuses the league of covering up life-altering brain injuries.
The NFL and GE, the largest U.S. conglomerate, will split the investment equally, with a $5 million investment from Under Armour toward a project to develop new materials and technologies to protect the brain from injury and to develop tools to track head impacts and injuries as they happen.
Kevin Plank, the founder and CEO of Under Armour, said one challenge to overcome was a tendency of athletes to downplay injuries for fear they will be prevented from playing.
"The fact today is that safety is not that cool," he said. "Our job is to change that."
The initiative comes nearly two months after the Institute of Medicine launched a sweeping study of sports-related concussions, particularly those in young people from elementary school through early adulthood.
A 2010 study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that U.S. emergency rooms yearly treat 173,000 temporary brain injuries, including concussions, related to sports or recreation among people less than 19 years old.
In professional sports, the NFL last year adopted stricter rules to determine when players can return to the playing field after suffering a concussion.
Patricia Horoho, the U.S. Army Surgeon General, said she welcomed the NFL-GE initiative, adding that there had been 250,000 brain injuries among Army members since 2000, of which 84 percent were not related to deployment.
Possible research areas include looking for genetic markers that could indicate a susceptibility to certain kinds of brain injuries, and developing more consistent treatment and management protocols, medical experts involved in the initiative said.
(Additional reporting by Kevin Gray; editing by Barbara Goldberg, Andrew Hay and Matthew Lewis)