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Brain researcher doesn't discard contact sports

Kevin Bieniek has seen what a human brain looks like on contact sports.

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Kevin Bieniek, Mayo Medical student, 2015

Kevin Bieniek has seen what a human brain looks like on contact sports.

As a predoctoral student in Mayo Clinic Graduate School's Neurobiology of Disease program in Jacksonville, Fla., the 26-year-old Rochester native recently led a research team that found an alarming prevalence of CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) in the brains of people who participated in amateur sports while they lived.

Bieniek, a 2007 Lourdes graduate, discussed the study and its findings on 'The Sports Coop' show on Rochester's KFAN radio station on Wednesday night.

CTE is a disorder that can only be diagnosed postmortem. This study by Bieniek and colleagues at the Mayo Clinic Brain Bank in Jacksonville found that CTE was present in 32 percent of the brains of 66 men who had participated in contact sports during their life.

"For CTE, we're specifically looking for pathology that's found in a very focal region of the brain," Bieniek explained. "There are grooves and folds in the brain and right at the depths of these folds we see pathology that's characteristic of CTE.

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"So the thought is, when you get these head injuries, there are shifts in the brain and at the depths of these folds is where the brain is most susceptible to these tearing forces. So you get an injury there and protein builds up, and that's what we're looking for at depth when we look at these brains, whether we can see the protein under the microscope."

Bieniek said there have been numerous studies on the brains of professional athletes. In a brain bank in Boston, he said they found roughly 96 percent of their NFL players had signs of CTE.

"This study was groundbreaking because these were mostly amateur athletes, and nobody before this really had a sense of how frequent this was in these athletes," he said.

Bieniek said more needs to be learned about CTE and its effects, and he doesn't think this study should necessarily discourage participation in contact sports.

"We need to make these sports safer, whether it's a manufacturer of equipment making their helmets safer, or whether it's coaches and officials reducing these head-to-head injuries by creating new rules," he said.

"And it is also on the parents and participants of these sports to be cognizant of head injuries and not return to the field of play after you've sustained a concussion or significant head injury."

Kevin and his two brothers all played football at Lourdes, and they were on Eagles teams which made three straight state tournament appearances from 2006-'08.

Bieniek attended Iowa State University where he studied biology and psychology and became interested in how the human brain works. He hopes to get his PhD in May.

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Bieniek, who is married but with no children yet, said he'd allow his child to play football.

"I think that I would be supportive of my child's interest in any sport, but would be incredibly vigilant and proactive as a parent," he said.

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