You don’t need to be a doctor to wonder how what goes on in every professional football game will effect the players long term. After all, the average person would only sustain that sort of trauma and those types of forces in a traumatic accident of some kind. Now a new study sheds light on what’s going on in the brains of players who don’t report concussion type symptoms and it’s not pretty.
There has been a good amount of concern and publicity of late about concussions. Questions about whether they are being accurately detected and diagnosed, and about the long term effects of repeated mild traumatic brain injury have been all the rage in the sports media. Much of this attention began with studies of World War II veterans who had mild concussions and then were tracked for many years to find an increased prevalence of Alzheimer’s disease. In addition, the stories of major depression and suicide in some players have also raised awareness.
A new study out of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel gives some valuable insight into those questions, and some unexpected findings. The study looked at 16 professional football players from Israel’s Black Swarm team, and used 13 track and field athletes as a control. They used a new technique called Dynamic Contrast Enhanced MRI imaging which allows unprecedented brain mapping. The MRIs were performed between games during the season and revealed significant damage to the Brain Blood Barrier, a membrane that protects the brain by not allowing harmful substances to penetrate it. Forty percent of the professional football players followed in the study with unreported concussions had evidence of a “leaky BBB” compared to 8.3 percent of the control group athletes. In addition, 6 of the football players had high BBB permeability, and only 1 track athlete had similar findings, indicating a strong connection between football at that level and increased risk of BBB issues.
The upshot? The BBB is a very important structure that helps keep bad chemicals out of the brain. When it’s damaged, the brain is much more susceptible to being injured. The findings of this new study are troubling and speak to the need for continued new helmet technology, more healing time before players are put back onto the field, and who should, and who shouldn’t, go back onto the field at all!