In part due to our mild climate, many Angelenos are outdoor sports enthusiasts. The glamour of becoming a professional football player attracts many into the sport and also prompts parents to encourage their children to pursue it. However, one must ask if the risk of serious brain damage is worth pursuing a career in football. In recent years, reports continue to emerge regarding the risk of major brain damage that can occur at all levels—from high school (and even earlier) up to the college and professional level. A new report published on October 17 in the journal Scientific Reports noted that brain scans of retired American football players exhibited profound brain deficits. The study was conducted by researchers at the Imperial College London.
The authors noted that recent research has described long-term neurological damage from repetitive concussive and sub-concussive injuries incurred by National Football League (NFL) players. They explained that, despite those reports, the neurological and psychological status of retired NFL players is currently unknown. Therefore, they conducted a study that evaluated the neurological function of 13 retired NFL players, compared to a control group (60 healthy volunteers). The two groups were given a test that involved rearranging colored balls in a series of tubes in as few steps as possible. Their performances and brain activation patterns were evaluated by functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). The NFL group did not perform as well on the test as the control group; however, the difference was modest. Despite the small performance difference between the two groups, the fMRI scans showed unusual patterns of brain activity in the frontal lobe. The difference between the two groups was so striking that a computer program was able to distinguish NFL alumni and controls at close to 90% accuracy based just on their frontal lobe activation patterns.
The frontal lobe is responsible is involved in movement, decision-making, problem solving, and planning. The premotor and motor areas of the frontal lobes contain nerves that control the execution of voluntary muscle movement. It is involved in several bodily functions, including: motor Functions; higher order functions, planning, reasoning, judgment, impulse control, and memory.
The researchers concluded that their results support the theory that NFL alumni have an increased probability of developing executive dysfunction. In addition, their study suggests that fMRI provides the most sensitive biomarker of the underlying neurological abnormality.
Take home message:
This study adds additional evidence that contact sports such as football can cause significant brain damage, including Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease. Interestingly, this report was conducted by British researchers. In Europe and Latin America, soccer is much more popular than football. The risk of a head injury is less with that sport. If you have a son (or daughter) who expresses interest in a contact sport such as football, you might try coaxing them into a safer alternative.