Study Finds Routine Hits Playing Football Cause Damage to Brain

New research led by Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Rochester Medical Center indicates that concussions aren’t the sole cause of damage to the brain in contact sports. A study of college football players found that typical hits sustained from playing just one season cause structural changes to the brain.

The researchers studied 38 University of Rochester players, putting accelerometers — devices that measures accelerative force — in their helmets for every practice and game. The players’ brains were scanned in an MRI machine before and after a season of play.

While only two players suffered clinically diagnosed concussions during the time they were followed in the study, the comparison of the post- and pre-season MRIs showed greater than two-thirds of the players experienced a decrease in the structural integrity of their brain. Specifically, the researchers found reduced white matter integrity in the midbrain after the season compared to before the season. Furthermore, and indicating the injury was specifically related to playing football, the researchers found the amount of white matter damage was correlated with the number of hits to the head players sustained.

The study is published in the journal Science Advances.

“Public perception is that the big hits are the only ones that matter. It’s what people talk about and what we often see being replayed on TV,” said senior study author Brad Mahon, an associate professor of psychology at Carnegie Mellon and scientific director of the Program for Translational Brain Mapping at the University of Rochester. “The big hits are definitely bad, but with the focus on the big hits, the public is missing what’s likely causing the long-term damage in players’ brains. It’s not just the concussions. It’s everyday hits, too.”

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