It may not be a secret that the NFL is in the midst of a concussion crisis, but we are only starting to understand how bad the problem really is. A recent study found that 40% of retired NFL players show long-term signs of traumatic brain injury, a substantially higher rate than what is seen in the general population.
The research, presented this week at an American Academy of Neurology meeting in Vancouver, is one of the first to find “objective evidence” of widespread traumatic brain injury in a large sample of former NFL players while they are still living, according to one of the authors of the study, Dr. Francis Conidi.
The researchers from Florida State University College of Medicine also emphasized that traumatic brain injury acts as a “precursor” to chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a neurodegenerative brain disease.
“What we do know is that players with traumatic brain injury have a high incidence of going on to develop neurological degenerative disease later on in life,” Conidi said.
In this study, 40 living former NFL players underwent scans of their brains using an advanced imaging technique known as diffusion tensor imaging (DTI), along with taking thinking and memory tests.”
While 40 may sound like a small sample size, Conidi points out that “no one has ever looked at this number of (living) players before.”
DTI scans measure water flow between parts of the brain to detect neurological damage. In this test, the scans found damage in 17 of the men (43%), approximately three times higher than the rates found in the general population. Traditional MRI scans of the players also found damage in 12 participants (30%).
As the result show, the chance of finding neurological damage using DTI imaging was greater the longer a player was in the league. However, there was no association between the number of diagnosed concussions a player reported and signs of damage.
Conidi believes the findings indicate the constant hits experienced by players during games and practices were more likely to contribute to these long-term signs of brain damage than the big concussion-causing hits that often make the news. To help prevent this, the researcher suggests eliminating tackling during practices.