The recent focus on brain injuries among athletes in football and other violent contact sports has mostly been on the development and use of tests such as the King-Devick screening test to diagnose probable concussions and help with the decision on when an athlete can return to competition.Other work has focused on trying to document the occurrence of head injuries and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) and of finding ways to protect against such injuries.
Work now is examining smaller blows to the head that occur again and again over time.
Si.com carried a recent story that deals with efforts to diagnose brain damage caused by so-called repetitive sub-concussive blows to the head that athletes in football constantly deal with. Offensive and defensive linemen are involved in helmet contact with opponents on practically every play. These players may be on the field for well over 60 snaps in a game. The problem is compounded by the fact that such damage has been maddeningly difficult to detect until a former football player displays severe behavioral and neurocognitive impairments, or dies and has his brain dissected.
Researchers at the University of Rochester and at the Cleveland Clinic have just published results of a study of football players in which they sought to determine if there is a positive relationship between these repeated blows to the head and higher levels of a protein that is an indicator of head injury.
The researchers tested players from Baldwin Wallace University, John Carroll University and the University of Rochester before and after games, and found elevated concentrations of the S100B protein in the blood of players who experienced the most hits. S100B is believed to aid the functioning of neurons in the brain in younger people. It is only present in the brain. The fact that traces of this substance showed up in the blood of players who had sustained the most hits during games led the researchers to wonder if the barrier that keeps blood from getting into the brain was somehow being broken down by the repeated blows.
The researchers noted that none of the players who had elevated levels of S100B in their blood had sustained concussions. This fact has opened up a new area of research. It also suggests the possibility that a simple blood test can be developed that can identify the possible existence of the early stages of brain damage even among players who have not had concussion diagnoses.
This study may be an important step along the road to understanding the link between contact sports and brain damage. For readers who want to learn more about this interesting development, read the Sports Illustrated article.