SPORTS

Iannuzzi hopes donation of brain after death will aid concussion research

09/24/2013 05:08 EDT | Updated 11/24/2013 05:12 EST
SURREY, B.C. - Marco Iannuzzi calls the decision a no-brainer.

The B.C. Lions receiver hopes the commitment to donate his brain after death for medical research will lead to more knowledge about how football and other contact sports affect the vital organ — and help reduce concussions.

"I've been living this life with a few concussions here and there," said Iannuzzi, who suffered one concussion last year and knows other current and former players who have dealt with them.

"I've been living the life of contact sport. So if I can lend my brain to furthering neuroscience and, maybe, limiting or diminishing these effects in the future, then why not? Let's do it."

Iannuzzi, a 26-year-old Calgary native who is in his third season with B.C., has donated his brain to a research program operated jointly by the Sports Legacy Institute, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and Boston University.

SLI is a non-profit group founded by a group of former Harvard football players. It has ties, and a formal partnership with, Lowell, Mass.-based helmet manufacturer Xenith LLC. The two groups aim to curb concussions through education, innovation, research, reduced risk and proper injury recognition and management.

Iannuzzi was among players who received a donation request package by mail.

"I signed it and faxed it back right away," he said.

Concussions have become increasingly controversial in recent years as more knowledge is obtained on their long-term effects. Earlier this month, the NFL settled a lawsuit with 4,500 former players for US $765 million amidst allegations the league concealed the long-term dangers of concussions and rushed player back into the lineup.

Some former NFL players, including former star linebacker Junior Seau, who suffered concussions have committed suicide. Former quarterbacks Dave Dickenson and Matt Dunigan are among CFLers whose careers have ended due to head injuries.

Iannuzzi hopes his donation will lead to a reduction in chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a progressive brain disease found in former athletes with a history of repetitive brain trauma. According to SLI, the trauma, which includes concussions, leads to a build-up of an abnormal protein called tau.

Effects of the build-up can begin months, years or even decades after a player's last concussion and can include memory loss, confusion, impaired judgment, paranoia, impulse control problems, aggression, depression and, eventually, progressive dementia.

Iannuzzi, who suffered a concussion when hit by Hamilton's Dee Williams last season and was left woozy following another collision with him this year, indicated he will retire if he ever feels hits to the head pose a threat to his ability to function.

The receiver, who has also pledged all of his other organs to medical research, is also concerned about the effects of concussions on former players. He does not like the effects that he has witnessed in one with whom he is close but declines to identify.

At least one former player, Lions general manager Wally Buono, would like to see as many former CFLers as possible pledge their brains. He would also like to see a formal program set up so that they can.

"It's always good to understand what's going on (with the effects of concussions.) As a former player, I don't know why we're not approached on a more professional level, to ask if you would be a part of this kind of stuff," said Buono. "So if they ask 100, maybe 50 say yes. If you ask none, none say yes."

Buono indicated he is willing to donate his organs, and suggested former players should not have misgivings about the decision to donate.

"When you're dead, you're dead," he said. "Hopefully, there's a legacy. But there's athletes going through what you went through 50 years ago. If you can use information that's hidden in your body to help them, why wouldn't you?"

The effects of CTE can be definitively diagnosed through an autopsy, but efforts are still underway to improve diagnosis and treatment among living people.

Perhaps accordingly, Buono is not immediately aware of former players from his era who are dealing with concussion-related effects.

"Maybe there are," said Buono, who suffered a concussion playing pickup hockey. "We don't know. Honestly, I don't know. You hear of somebody (having health problems), but there's a lot of other issues, usually other than concussions. I can't say to you that I run into guys that I played with, or played against, that (a concussion) is the most impactful thing that's happened to them. Most of them, it's joints or your knees. It's your shoulders or it's your back.

"The head seems to be pretty good."

But despite the increasing knowledge of how concussions link to contact sports, he warns against keeping youngsters out of certain athletic pursuits.

Contending many kids have been "saved" from poverty, crime, drug abuse and other societal problems by hopes and dreams provided by sports, he suggests it would be unwise to keep them out because of perceived risk of head injury.

"I don't want to be cavalier here, but what's worse: You have one guy having a concussion or 100 guys having degenerate knees?" he asked. "Unfortunately, in sports, there's collisions of heads and necks.

"There's a price to pay for everything," he said. "If head trauma is a part of what we get paid for in professional sports, well we all know that."

Lions coach Mike Benevides admires the price that Iannuzzi is willing to pay for concussion research.

"Any time a human being is willing to put themselves in a situation where they can donate for the betterment of human society, I think it's a great thing," said Benevides. "But it's certainly a personal decision for Marco."

Note to readers: This version removes a Buono quote from para 17 for clarity.

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