Football season is in full gear across America and everywhere you can hear the cracking sounds of helmets meeting helmets, like bighorn sheep battling for dominance in the Rocky Mountains.
Much attention has been paid in recent years to concussions and other neurological damage among football players, especially the cumulative effects of playing the violent game for many years.
New research has found that even a single season of helmet hits can reduce white matter in the brain, leading to cognitive and motor problems.
Researchers at the University of Rochester Medical Center outfitted 38 players from the school’s football team with helmet-mounted Head Impact Telemetry System accelerometers that measured the impact that each helmet absorbed.
They tracked more than 19,000 total hits throughout the season. Most of the hits occurred during practices, but the hits during games were significantly stronger. They mapped out numerous areas of the helmets — and, thus, the brain — that took the greatest number of hits.
MRIs were taken of the midbrain of the players at the start and end of the season. Even though only two players were diagnosed with concussions, the results showed an overall reduction in white matter in all of the players. The extent of this reduction corresponded to the number of hits the player sustained.
The main takeaways are that even less-violent helmet hits in practice add up, and that MRIs of the midbrain can help physicians diagnose “clinically silent” brain injuries and make better decisions on whether the player should return to the field. Catching these problems early can make a difference in preventing long-term neurological injury.