Ongoing Purdue University research into football players' brains bolsters one element of a lawsuit by former NFL players against the league: Repetitive blows to the head produce subconcussive injury and increase the risk of long-term brain damage and cognitive decline.
The Purdue Neurotrauma Group first gained national attention in 2010 for its work in studying the brains of high school players. But the research, which first focused on the effects of concussions, now shows something even more disturbing: More than half the players who never suffered concussions experience neurophysiological changes to their brain that often affects cognitive abilities.
"I don't know what the NFL said or didn't say to its players, but fMRI exams repeatedly tell this truth: Repeated blows to players' heads change the way their brains function for the worse," said Tom Talavage, a Purdue professor of biomedical engineering. "We may be putting too much focus on concussions. That is only the final straw after thousands of hits over several years."
The early research was featured in Sports Illustrated, NBC Nightly News, CNN and PBS Frontline. Over three seasons the researchers have used sensors in helmets to document every blow to each player's head. Players take cognitive exams and fMRIs before, during and after the season.
The researchers have been consulting with high school and college athletic associations to improve safety through better coaching, rules and officiating. They have also developed new helmet technologies that dramatically reduce the G-force transferred to the brain.
"Football helmets are designed to protect the skull and the face, not the brain," said Eric Nauman, a Purdue professor of biomedical engineering. "We can build a better helmet, but we are probably going to have to find ways to reduce the number of times boys and young men subject their brains to massive G-forces."
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