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Health Team

UNC screens NFL players to track brain changes over time

Posted April 15

Free safety Colin Branch, who played for the Carolina Panthers from 2003 to 2007, is aware of stories about other former players who suffered concussions on the field that caused problems later in life.

— As the NFL becomes more aware of the long-term effects of brain injury and concussions, some former players are coming to Chapel Hill for help.

Free safety Colin Branch, who played for the Carolina Panthers from 2003 to 2007, is aware of stories about other former players who suffered concussions on the field that caused problems later in life.

He's also aware that increasing knowledge about concussions is forcing changes in NFL practices.

Even the rules for diagnosing concussions on the field and determining how soon a player can return are more stringent now than they were when Branch played.

"When you got hit in the head or had a concussion, you know, you get evaluated and really get back out on the field. That was more the protocol," he said.

"For the better part of our football careers, we tried to mask a lot of our injuries and deficiencies. When you get into a normal stage of life, that's not exactly the best course to take."

Doctors can compare Branch's tests to future scans to look for changes in his brain. If issues are discovered, they can refer Branch to appropriate services closer to home.

The NFL Players' Association is funding the tests, part of a new emphasis on player health and safety beyond the bounds of a pro career. 

"They've created three different program sites across the U.S. who host a brain and body health program," said Leah Cox, of UNC.

Branch is not participating for himself alone.

"It's everybody else that loves you who is going to be affected at some point by changes in the way that you can function – physically, mentally and emotionally," he said.

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