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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.
“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.”
The midbrain, located in the center of the head and just beneath the cerebral cortex, is part of a larger stalk-like rigid structure that includes the brain stem and the thalamus. The relative rigidity of the midbrain means it absorbs forces differently than surrounding softer tissues, making it biomechanically susceptible to the forces caused by head hits. The midbrain supports functions like eye movements, which are impacted by concussions and hits to the head. While head hits are known to affect many parts of the brain simultaneously, the researchers decided to focus the study on the midbrain, hypothesizing that this structure would be the “canary in the coal mine” for sub-concussive hits.