Brain Damage in Football Players May Be Hidden

Even without concussion, some high school football players can have impairment.

ByABC News
October 9, 2010, 12:59 PM

Oct. 9, 2010— -- Some high school football players can have neurological impairment without suffering a concussion, researchers found.

That group of players had a significantly greater rate of hits to the head compared with players who were concussed or who did not have any neurological impairment, Thomas Talavage of Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind., and colleagues reported online in the Journal of Neurotrauma.

Because players without concussion symptoms will continue to participate in practices and games, those players may be at risk for long-term neurodegeneration from repeated impacts to the head -- even if no individual blow causes a concussion -- the researchers noted.

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"Consequently, high priority should be given to the development of procedures that may lead to identification of these at-risk individuals," they wrote.

Talavage and his colleagues performed neurocognitive testing with the ImPACT concussion screening tool and functional MRI scans on 21 high school football players before the start of the 2009 season. Throughout the season, all players wore sensors in their helmets that indicated the direction and intensity of any collisions to the head during practices or games.

The researchers selected 11 of the players for further in-season and post-season assessments because they either suffered a concussion, had an unusually high number of hits to the head, or had a particularly strong hit to the head. Three had a concussion and eight did not.

As expected, the three concussed players had significantly lower neurocognitive performance after their injuries compared with baseline values. They also had impairments observed on fMRI, particularly in the regions of the brain known as the posterior middle and the superior temporal gyri.

Among the eight players who did not suffer a concussion during the season -- who were meant to act as controls -- four did not have impairments on neurocognitive testing and fMRI scans.