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Should Peyton Manning (and Future Football Stars) Be Taking This Daily Supplement?

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"Preloading" with the omega-3 fatty acid DHA -- found in fish oil and algae supplements -- might one day help football players, combat soldiers and others protect against the damage caused by repeated brain injury, according to a study just published in the journal Neurosurgery.

Although preliminary, the results raise the "intriguing" possibility that boosting the fatty acid, which already exists in the brain, may have neuroprotective benefits, says the study's author Julian Bailes, M.D., of West Virginia University, Morgantown.

The research was funded by Martek Biosciences, a company that makes DHA supplements and retains Bailes as a consultant. That said, the results are bound to get attention. Numerous recent studies have linked the constant head-ramming and concussions common in football and other sports to a degenerative brain disease similar to Alzheimer's.

The condition, called chronic traumatic encephalopathy (C.T.E.), was documented in horrifying detail in a New Yorker essay by Malcolm Gladwell just over a year ago. Here's how that story began:

One evening in August, Kyle Turley was at a bar in Nashville with his wife and some friends. It was one of the countless little places in the city that play live music. He’d ordered a beer, but was just sipping it, because he was driving home. He had eaten an hour and a half earlier. Suddenly, he felt a sensation of heat. He was light-headed, and began to sweat. He had been having episodes like that with increasing frequency during the past year—headaches, nausea. One month, he had vertigo every day, bouts in which he felt as if he were stuck to a wall. But this was worse. He asked his wife if he could sit on her stool for a moment. The warmup band was still playing, and he remembers saying, “I’m just going to take a nap right here until the next band comes on.” Then he was lying on the floor, and someone was standing over him. “The guy was freaking out,” Turley recalled. “He was saying, ‘Damn, man, I couldn’t find a pulse,’ and my wife said, ‘No, no. You were breathing.’ I’m, like, ‘What? What?’ ”

They picked him up. “We went out in the parking lot, and I just lost it,” Turley went on. “I started puking everywhere. I couldn’t stop. I got in the car, still puking. My wife, she was really scared, because I had never passed out like that before, and I started becoming really paranoid. I went into a panic. We get to the emergency room. I started to lose control. My limbs were shaking, and I couldn’t speak. I was conscious, but I couldn’t speak the words I wanted to say.”

Gladwell goes on to explain that Turley was 34 years old at the time, had played NFL football for nine years before 2007, and was aware of the post-career histories of other former players, including:

  • Mike Webster, the longtime Pittsburgh Steeler, who "ended his life a recluse, sleeping on the floor of the Pittsburgh Amtrak station."
  • Terry Long, another Pittsburgh Steeler, who "drifted into chaos and killed himself four years ago by drinking antifreeze."
  • Andre Waters, a former defensive back for the Philadelphia Eagles, who "sank into depression and pleaded with his girlfriend—“I need help, somebody help me”—before shooting himself in the head."
(The 32 teams in the NFL generate roughly $4 billion in revenue annually, not counting TV advertising profits.)

For this latest brain study, scientists treated rats with DHA at varying doses, induced brain injuries, then measured the tissue and behavioral response. They found that tissue damage was significantly reduced in the animals taking the highest dose of DHA -- 40 milligrams per kilogram of body weight.

For a player like Peyton Manning, who weighs 230 pounds (about 104 kilograms), that would would equal about 4,000 milligrams per day. A typical drugstore brand contains 1,000 milligrams per capsule.

But in their press release about the study, the scientists emphasized that more research was needed before any preloading began.
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