Researchers Link Traumatic Brain Injuries to Football

New research led by Carnegie Mellon University in collaboration with the University of Rochester Medical Center determined the causative agent for brain damage in contact sports aren’t only by the mild traumatic brain injury (TBI) called concussion.

College football players conducted a study and came up with the conclusion that structural changes to the brain are caused by the typical hits assisted by playing just one season.

The researchers scanned the brains of their participants before and after a season of play in a Magnetic Resonance Imaging machine. They observed 38 football players of the University of Rochester, by measuring the accelerative force of the players for every practice and game with the help of accelerometers attached in their helmets. These gadgets measure linear and rotational acceleration when the players were indulged in practices and games, recording forces of 10 gs or greater.

The findings from the study are published in the journal Science Advances.

The results show only two players were diagnosed with concussions during the time study was being conducted. There was a decline in the structural integrity of their brain reported by comparing the MRIs before and after season. The researchers found a significant decrease in the white matter in the midbrain in post-season MRI. Moreover, the injury was interlinked with playing football.

Brad Mahon, an associate professor of psychology at Carnegie Mellon and scientific director of the Program for Translational Brain Mapping at the University of Rochester and lead author of the study said; “Public perception is that the big hits are the only ones that matter. It’s what people talk about and what we often see being replayed on TV,” He explained; “The big hits are definitely bad, but with the focus on the big hits, the public is missing what’s likely causing the long-term damage in players’ brains. It’s not just the concussions. It’s everyday hits, too.”

A senior author of the study Adnan Hirad, an M.D./Ph.D. candidate at the University of Rochester’s Medical Scientist Training Program said, “We hypothesized and found that the midbrain is a key structure that can serve as an index of injury in both clinically defined concussions and repetitive head hits. What we cataloged in our study are things that can’t be observed simply by looking at or behaviorally testing a player, on or off the field. These are ‘clinically silent’ brain injuries.”

The study found that midbrain serves as an index of injury either the player experiences repetitive head hits or clinically diagnosed concussions. The researchers’ main concern was on the clinically silent brain injuries.

Hirad said; “We measured the linear acceleration, rotational acceleration, and direction of impact of every hit the players sustained. This allowed us to create a three-dimensional map of all of the forces their brains sustained.”

The results of the accelerometer showed that the players sustained more rotational acceleration leading to more structural changes in the midbrain.

The second part of the study included 29 athletes from various contact sports who were diagnosed with concussion and 58 without it.

The 29 concussed athletes had MRI scans and their blood samples were taken within 72 hours of injury. Like the football team, their structural integrity in the midbrain was declined, and an elevated level of Tau, protein in the blood, its elevation was determined with a decrease in brain integrity.

“Our research, in the context of prior research over the past several years, is beginning to indicate that the accumulation of many sub-concussive hits is instrumental in driving long-term damage in football players’ brains,” Mahon explained. “Future research will be required in order to translate our findings into concrete directives that are relevant to public health. An important direction for future research will be to carry out larger-scale longitudinal studies of contact sports athletes in various ages groups.”

“We also need to re-evaluate how we make return-to-play decisions,” Hirad said. ” The current conclusions were drawn by observing the player is experiencing symptoms of concussion-like dizziness or unconsciousness. The hits players are sustaining are causing brain injuries.

Adeena Tariq

Adeena's professional life has been mostly in hospital management, while studying international business in college. Of course, she now covers topics for us in health.

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