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Football Can Still Damage Players’ Brains Even When They Don’t Get Concussions

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You don’t need to take a blow to the head to be seriously injured.

For the past several years, heated debates have taken place about the potential damage that football can do to the brain for young and old athletes. The National Football League took a lot of criticism for seemingly covering up the many studies that showed clear brain damage as a result of football. Many parents of young athletes are even trying to take the hitting out of football to save their children from any harm.

As it turns out, football collisions can cause brain damage, even when the player doesn’t receive a concussion. Routine head bumps over the course of a football season have been linked to abnormal brain tissue in part of players’ brain stems. There was no evidence up to this point that these little hits to the head were affecting mental performance, but the build-up of these little head knocks could spell danger.

A study at the University of Rochester during the 2011, 2012, and 2013 football season revealed some interesting information. Players were recruited to participate in the study and were asked to wear an accelerometer to capture the forces that impacted them in all practices and games. Each player also underwent pre- and post-season brain scans. Fractional anisotropy allowed researchers to estimate how well stretches of white matter brain tissue can carry neural signals.

38 players participated in the study and took a combined 19,128 hits. At the end of the season, players on average had lower measures of fractional anisotropy in their right midbrains. They noticed that the impact was stronger when the hit involved having the players head turn to the side, as opposed to direct force. As a result, researchers are looking more into the impact of rotational hits and what can possibly be done in the future to prevent major damage.