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I’m a pro football fan, but for how much longer? It’s not easy cheering for a sport that often wrecks the brains and bodies of the players. So I’m glad to help make the game a little bit safer, by running an app on my iPhone.
It’s called TeamStudy, and it’s built by researchers at Harvard University, with money from the National Football League Players Association. It’s already in use by thousands of former players, making it the biggest health study of ex-NFL athletes ever attempted. TeamStudy will try to measure everything from the effects of old concussions to the condition of each player’s heart.
But the Harvard researchers want the rest of us to join the team. By persuading thousands of ordinary people to run the app as well, the scientists plan to build a vast national database that could someday make players healthier—and us, too.
Alvaro Pascual-Leone, the cognitive neurologist who’s leading the TeamStudy project, is appalled by devastating brain injuries suffered by football players. But he’s also a fan who hopes to rescue the sport by making it safer.
There’s a lot of that going on around here. Boston University set up the world’s first research center dedicated to chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the brain disease frequently caused by head injuries in sports. And a Boston startup called SyncThink
just got approval from the US Food and Drug Administration for a virtual reality headset that can tell in 60 seconds whether an athlete has suffered a concussion. Harvard itself has multiple efforts underway across the university to study the effects of playing football on an athlete’s health.
Football can damage every part of the body, so Harvard’s TeamStudy tracks all sorts of conditions, like how well a person can walk—even the condition of his heart.
“I don’t know exactly what we’ll find,” said former New England Patriot linebacker Steve DeOssie, who began beta-testing the app six months ago. “We’re not trying to prove anything. We’re trying to show everything.”
But you can’t understand the physical effects of the game by studying only the players. For instance, DeOssie is often sore in the morning, but so are many other 53-year-olds. “I don’t know how much of it is wear and tear from football and how much of it is getting older,” he said.
That’s where we come in. Pascual-Leone wants thousands of us to take the same tests he’s giving the NFL players. That way, scientists can find out whether aging NFL stars are deteriorating faster than, say, burned-out journalists.
It’s a painless process. After filling out an introductory questionnaire, TeamStudy put me through a few simple challenges. For instance, the app asks you to type the answer to a simple question. You’re not graded on the answer itself. TeamStudy wants to see how fast you type and how many typos you make, as a way of measuring your dexterity and clarity of mind.
In another test, you’re asked to walk normally for 45 seconds, with the phone in your pocket. The phone’s motion sensor measures how smoothly you walk and how much ground you cover. Then you’re asked to do it again, while doing a simple arithmetic problem in your head. I can walk and count at the same time, but only just.
Performing the TeamStudy tests will require only 20 minutes per week. Over time, the Harvard squad will compile performance profiles on non-athletes and ex-athletes alike, and learn to distinguish the lingering effects of sports injuries from the normal decay of aging.
All the collected data is transmitted to the Harvard team, but it’s anonymized to protect the user’s privacy. And if enough of us participate, the results could lead to better health care for people who’ve only sacked quarterbacks in their dreams.
Here’s the part where I’m supposed to warn of dire threats to our privacy. Only I won’t, because I don’t see any; TeamStudy vows to preserve its users’ anonymity. Indeed, I’m hoping that the Harvard study sets a new standard for medical research, by helping make lab rats of us all.
TeamStudy’s biggest weakness is that too few people can use it. The software is based on Apple Inc.’s ResearchKit, a medical research tool that runs only on iOS devices like the iPhone and Apple Watch. Since Apple launched ResearchKit last year, about two dozen apps have used it, helping patients track various ailments like diabetes and hepatitis. But millions of people, including those who can only afford cheap smartphones running Alphabet Inc.’s Android software, won’t be able to participate.
But to Apple’s credit, ResearchKit can be freely modified to run on other devices. Gearheads at Cornell University are cobbling together an Android version right now. Then, almost anybody with a smartphone could become a medical researcher in his spare time, with vast benefits for us all. TeamStudy might help save the NFL, and a lot more besides.Hiawatha Bray can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeTechLab.