War injury leads to advances at home
"It's always been an uphill struggle for those of us who do this," Kelly says.

Those who have a professional pedigree similar to Kelly's have been among the first to enlist. He served as the neurologist for the Chicago Bears and has been, for the last 10 years, a neurologist for the National Hockey League Players' Assn.

The military turned to sports medicine specialists for help making a decision that coaches and players face when they suspect a collision has resulted in concussion: whether to take a player out of the game or a soldier off the battlefield.

The result of the collaboration was the MACE card — short for Military Acute Concussion Evaluation -- that every military medic in Iraq and Afghanistan carries. It is a paper-and-pencil adaptation of a computer-based test called ImPACT, designed for coaches and trainers to gauge the presence and severity of concussive symptoms.

Long-term effects

Such common ground also includes a growing concern for the long-term effects of these injuries.

In September 2008, the Defense Department and the NFL convened a conference to share news and research on traumatic brain injury, including the biomechanics of brain injury, new helmet designs, concussion prevention, and better ways to diagnose and assess traumatic brain injury on the sidelines and in the hospital.

"Warfare is a curse on humanity, but the things that are learned in warfare invariably translate to civilian use," says Dr. Kenneth C. Curley, the Army's neurotrauma research coordinator.

And the population of aging professional athletes -- unstudied until recently -- may provide military veterans and those who care for them a revealing glimpse of their future.

Already, studies of retired NFL players have yielded links between recurrent concussions and elevated rates of depression, mild cognitive impairment and earlier onset of Alzheimer's disease.

Research published in the January issue of Brain, for example, found problems with memory, attention and movement initiation among a group of former college hockey and football players ages 50 to 65 with histories of concussion -- in some cases, just one concussion.

A study conducted for the NFL by the University of Michigan is expected to echo those findings when it is released in the coming weeks.

The survey of more than 1,000 retired NFL players found that they were more than five times as likely as the general population of people their age to report symptoms of dementia, memory loss and other cognitive problems, and that they do so much earlier.

The long-term effects of concussion are expected to become clearer yet with the publication next year of studies of NFL players with recurrent concussion, conducted by the University of North Carolina's Center for the Study of Retired Athletes.

And Boston University's encephalopathy center has secured the donation of brains from more than 100 deceased athletes at the pro, college and high school levels who sustained multiple concussions.

For Jaime Torres, the coach of Lakewood's Pop Warner junior midget football team, concussion advice for youth sports teams can't come soon enough.

Torres, who has coached the Lakewood Lancers for seven years, says he took an online course and researched concussion on a website for coaches that was created by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Recently he helped assess a kid who appeared stunned on the ground after a tough tackle.

But, he says, "since most of the research money on concussions probably comes from the military," the armed services need to use their prestige with coaches to get the message out: Kids' brains need to be protected, and here are the steps you need to take.

melissa.healy@latimes.com