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Minor head hits can chip away at a football player’s brain — even when there’s no concussion, research suggests

Thanks to a string of new and quite disturbing studies (including one I reported on earlier this year), neuroscientists are finally beginning to get their message through the (thick?) skulls of football, hockey, soccer and other contact sports enthusiasts: Hits to the head need to be taken seriously.

All hits to the head.

Just last week, the Mayo Clinic held an “Ice Hockey Summit: Action on Concussion” conference in Rochester, which brought together researchers, physicians, coaches, equipment manufacturers and hockey officials from around the country. In its final recommendations the conference urged delaying the introduction of body checking in hockey to age 13 and prohibiting contact to the head at all levels of the game — including the National Hockey League (N.H.L.) Participants also left the conference, according to the Strib, pledging to advocate for change by educating more people about the dangers of head injuries in contact sports.

Those conference attendees will undoubtedly be pleased, therefore, to read the feature article on football and head injuries in the Nov. 1 issue of Sports Illustrated, which lands on newsstands today. In the article, staff writer David Epstein reports on the troubling findings of a recent Purdue University study.As a Sports Illustrated press release notes, this “groundbreaking new study … could permanently alter how football across all levels treats brain injuries and head traumas.”

Here are the details of the study, as reported by Epstein: In 2009, the Purdue researchers gave 23 football players from Jefferson High School in Lafayette, Ind., a computerized neurocognitive exam that tests memory and concentration. While taking the test, the players’ brain activity was monitored by functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). The players were then fitted with helmets with accelerometers — sensors that can measure the force of physical impacts. They wore these helmets throughout the season.

Midway through the season, 11 players took the neurocognitive test again. “[T]hree had suffered concussions during the season and eight had never had concussions,” writes Epstein. “Of those eight, four nevertheless showed significant declines in visual memory. In fact, the players with the most impaired visual memory skills were not coming from the concussed group but from a group that in the week preceding the test had taken a large numbers of hits — around 150 — mostly in the 40 to 80 G range. [NFL-sponsored studies have assumed in the past that a hit would need to be in excess of 80 times the force of gravity to cause a concussion.]”

In addition, the fMRI results revealed that the players who had taken a lot of “middling” hits on the field — but suffered no concussion — experienced “an unmistakable decline in activity in an area of the brain just behind the forehead called the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, which is critical to visual memory,” writes Epstein.

“If the test scores were accurate,” he adds, “the researchers had inadvertently documented, in real time, a new classification of high school athlete: a player who was never concussed, was not verbally impaired and was asymptomatic even as far as his parents could tell, but whose visual memory was more impaired than his amnesic, headachy, light-sensitive, concussed teammates.”

The Purdue study wasn’t designed to determine what the long-term consequences of these brain injuries might be, but other research has shown that NFL players who suffered known concussions during their playing years were more prone to a variety of neurological problems later in life, including depression and memory-related diseases, such as Alzheimer’s.

These findings should rattle the brains of players, coaches and parents alike.

“[I]t’s possible that all along, while brain trauma questions have focused on concussions, the real damage is being inflicted by minor impacts that chip away at the brain,” says Epstein.

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