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Brain & Nervous System Health Center

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Season of High School Football Hits May Alter Brain

Players did not have concussions, still showed changes in white matter


"I think the current discussion about concussion and young athletes says, 'Well, yes, the kids get concussion in football but they get it in a lot of other sports too, such as soccer and hockey,' etc.," said Dr. Lyle Micheli, director of sports medicine at Boston Children's Hospital and a clinical professor of orthopedic surgery at Harvard Medical School.

"The difference, however, is that this study raises the concern in a sport such as football, where much of the tactic of the game is to hit with your head," Micheli said, and that "this sport in its very nature is going to increase the chance of getting traumatic brain injury."

While Micheli added that "this scientifically is a very sound study," he noted that as a meeting presentation, it has not yet gone through the peer-review process it must to be published in a medical journal. "I do think it's publishable [and] will be submitted to a journal and will be accepted, I'm sure," he said.

"It doesn't show cause and effect, but it shows an association that is very concerning," Micheli said.

There are ways to minimize the threat to young football players, both experts noted.

"We found that the majority of exposure for most of the kids is during practice," Powers said. "The low-hanging fruit is limiting practice, limiting hitting in practice, limiting drills."

He commended Little League baseball for limiting pitch counts to prevent shoulder injuries.

In youth football, he said, "I'd like to see something similar with head impacts, where we figure out the number of impacts that one can safely be exposed to, and I use the term 'safely' loosely here because all it takes is one hit to generate a concussion."

Micheli said that the key is coaching and officiating, including "better enforcement of rules against late head hits."

In rugby, for example, with dangerous play, "you get a red card, you're thrown out of the game," Micheli said. "And your team plays one [player] down. That's got real teeth in it."

To extend the findings, Powers will analyze a new batch of data from the football team's 2013 season.

The researchers plan to look at whether the brain is able to heal itself, or whether it loses that ability at some point.

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