Harvard researchers tackle football player health with new smartphone app

Former Seattle Seahawks player Chad Brown

Scientists have focused on developing new tech to address brain injuries in football players, but now, a group of researchers is thinking bigger picture. Researchers at Harvard University are launching a smartphone app through Apple's ($AAPL) ResearchKit that takes a broad look at players' health after they leave the field.

The app, called TeamStudy, allows former NFL players to figure out whether their health problems are a product of age or the injuries that they endured as an athlete. TeamStudy draws on questionnaires and smartphone-tracking capabilities to collect data in real time about players' physical and cognitive health. Football players will log information using the tool, but scientists are also asking members of the public to download the app and participate as a control group, The Wall Street Journal reports.

Researchers will then sort through the information to figure out "what is an artifact from your playing career and what is happening because you're 50 years old and live an active lifestyle," Chad Brown, a retired NFL player who is an adviser on development of the app, told the newspaper. The data will also help players compare their health status against that of other retired athletes with similar careers.

The app plays into a larger initiative at Harvard called the Football Players Health Study. The study, which was revealed three years ago and is funded by the NFL players' union, aims to uncover new diagnostics and therapies to minimize the impact of football injuries in retired players. About 3,000 former players are in the study, and most of them will likely participate in the app research, according to the WSJ story.

Harvard scientists have big plans for the app. Researchers want to link to player clinical records, which include their DNA sequences, heart and brain tests and information on health habits, with data from the app to show how different factors can impact players' health. The study will first be available only for iPhone through the AppStore, but other versions will be developed in the future.

The research comes as the industry and scientists tackle football-related injuries and their aftermath. Earlier this week, the NFL for the first time pointed to a link between playing football and the brain disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy. Companies such as GE ($GE) and Quanterix are working on technology that could help improve diagnostics for football-related brain injuries.

But the Harvard researchers' latest effort will take a more comprehensive look at players' health, Dr. Alvaro Pascual-Leone, a professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School and principal investigator of TeamStudy, told the WSJ. The study "is not about a few years after football and not just about the players' brains, but about their health across their lifespan," Pascual-Leone said.

- here's the WSJ story (sub. req.)
- read more about the study