Study Finds Sub-Concussive Hits May Cause Brain Damage
A recent study of collegiate football players’ brains both before and after their season shows that hits that occur routinely in practices and games can cause brain damage – despite not sustaining concussions.
Researchers from Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Rochester assessed how repetitive head hits impacted the midbrain, the part of the brain which contains the thalamus and brain stem, and supports functions such as eye movement. The study, supported by grants from the NFL Charities and National Institute of Health, involved 38 University of Rochester football players. Their brains were scanned in an MRI machine pre- and post-season in 2011, 2012, and 2013. The players experienced nearly 20,000 hits across all practices and games.
Published in the journal Science Advances, the study found that although only two players actually sustained clinically diagnosed concussions over the seasons studied, their pre-and post-season MRIs showed evidence that more than two-thirds of them experienced reduced integrity of white matter. White matter connects to grey matter and accounts for connection among neurons, perceptual speed, and executive functioning. There was a correlation between the number of head hits that a player experienced and the severity of the loss. It was also evidenced that hits in which the head twisted caused more damage than head-on hits.
Providing a New Solution
This study may provide a new solution for identifying injury among players. “This study suggests that midbrain imagining using diffusion MRI might be a way in the future to diagnose injury from a single concussive head hit and/or from repetitive sub-concussive head hits,” said Dr. Bazarian, a co-author of the study.
A secondary analysis looked at 29 athletes diagnosed with a concussion and 58 athletes who were not. The athletes who suffered concussions underwent MRI scans and a blood withdrawal within 72 hours of their injury. The results presented a reduction in white matter in the brain, as well as increased tau, a protein found in the blood.
The study’s admitted limitations included a lack of exploration regarding gender or sex differences as well as limited attention to the midbrain despite the fact that traumatic brain injuries often impact multiple areas of the brain.
The study demonstrates that brain damage appears to be caused over time due to hits. However, medical decisions are currently made based on concussive symptoms.
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