Can One Season of College Football Cause Brain Damage – Even Without the Concussion?

21 Aug, 2019

By: Michael Popke
This and Other Concussion-Related News

A new study shows that playing just one season of college football can cause brain damage — even if players don’t suffer a concussion. That’s the word from researchers at the University of Rochester and elsewhere, who followed 38 of the school’s football players and published their results in Science Advances.

As reports:

The athletes wore helmets outfitted with accelerometers to track the number and force of hits during practices and games. Before and after each season, the scientists took MRI scans of the players’ brains. The researchers looked specifically at the midbrain, a region on the brain stem that governs primitive, thoughtless functions such as hearing and temperature regulation. When a player’s head is hit from any angle, the brain ripples like the surface of a pond after a rock is thrown, explains study author Adnan Hirad, a medical student at U of R. Although the forces can affect many regions of the brain, the midbrain’s central location makes it likely to sustain damage.

The results were striking. Although only two of the 38 players received a concussion, more than two-thirds of them showed changes to the integrity of the white matter of their midbrains. Rotational hits—when a player’s helmet is struck by a glancing blow — were particularly bad for the midbrain’s white matter.

The researchers also found the same MRI signature of injury in the midbrain in a separate cohort with diagnosed concussions. In this second cohort, the changes in the midbrain were correlated with increased levels of tau protein in those individuals’ bloodstreams. The protein, which indicates brain cell damage, is linked to chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a condition that can cause memory loss, depression, and emotional instability, and can eventually lead to dementia.

The midbrain is like the “canary in the coal mine for the whole brain,” says study author Bradford Mahon, a neuroscientist at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. Mahon and Hirad hope the region will prove useful to doctors and researchers in the future, and show a more nuanced picture of how football’s repetitive hits can harm players’ brains, even when they are not concussed.

The scientists plan to use their research to develop algorithms that could glean data from helmet accelerometers and signal when a player has sustained dangerous levels of damage. As a first step, the team has created the Open Brain Project, where players can upload their helmet data.

In other concussion-related news:

  • A rule change implemented in 2014 by the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association (WIAA) limiting the number of full-contact practices in which players could participate has led to a significant decrease in concussions. In a study published in the American Journal of Sports Medicine, researchers compared the concussion rates of 2,000 high school football players in the two years before the rule change with those of 900 players the season after the change. “Our analysis shows that targeted rule changes can have a beneficial effect on lowering the risk for concussions,” Tim McGuine, a scientist in the department of orthopedics and rehabilitation at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s School of Medicine and Public Health, told WKOW-TV, Madison’s ABC affiliate. “It’s imperative that we identify strategies that keep our student-athletes safe while still maintaining the integrity of the game, and this particular measure appears to do both.” The revised WIAA rules prohibit full-contact practices during the first week of preseason and then limit them to 75 minutes during the second week and 60 minutes per week thereafter.
  • San Francisco 49ers cornerback Richard Sherman has invested in a Seattle-based company called Vicis, which makes football helmets designed to reduce the severity of head impacts. According to, the company says players on 28 of the NFL’s 32 teams wear a Vicis helmet. The NFL announced in January that its players experienced 214 concussions during the 2018 season — down 24 percent from the previous season’s 281 but still a staggering number. Sherman also serves as an advisor to experimental drug manufacturer Oxeia Biopharmaceuticals, which CNBC reports is developing a pill that would create a reaction in the brain to mitigate the impact of a concussion. Work with the Federal Drug Administration is ongoing.
  • State health officials in New Mexico are proposing additional steps to ensure greater awareness and prevention of concussions in youth sports by standardizing safeguards. According to the Associated Press, the plan calls for coaches and many young athletes to automatically undergo training to detect signs of a concussion and understand its potential consequences, under rules proposed by the New Mexico Department of Health. A public hearing is expected on the proposal. As the AP noted, New Mexico in 2010 adopted “far-reaching prevention and education measures to address concussions and potential brain injuries in school sports.” More recently, in 2017, legislation extended training and education to student-athletes.

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