While watching the NFL Super Bowl this past Sunday, I was reminded of some profound new information on the negative consequences of multiple concussions: six of the six NFL players who died before age 50 and whose brains were studied showed signs of CTE - chronic traumatic encephalopathy. This new research from the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy is advancing our collective understanding of concussions, particularly with regard to the negative ramifications of multiple concussions.
Prior to the recent breakthroughs based on analysis of donated posthumous brain tissue, concussions were thought of as non-specific brain injuries resulting from a sudden jarring or shaking of the brain. Studying concussion victims with traditional non-invasive imaging techniques has not been effective in identifying the damage caused, even though the cognitive / psychological effects of a concussion are generally very evident and can be very serious. Closer investigation of brain tissue donated by athletes - primarily professional American football players - reveals that repetitive head trauma results in the accumulation of a specific protein (tau) in the synapses between neurons, reducing the functionality and eventually killing those neurons. In this sense, chronic traumatic encephalopathy is very similar to Alzheimer's dementia.
The reason I'm interested in blogging about this new research is not just that it's about the brain, but also because I think it has an important link to education. Sports are often labeled co-curricular or extra-curricular, but they are an important aspect of school communities. Some schools even require participation on an athletic team as part of their graduation requirements because the experience can be so educational. One of the most prominent of high school sports here in the USA is football, a highly physical contact sport that is the most common origin for sports-related concussions in high school males and the origin of over 60% of all sports-related concussions for that age group (CDC Concussion and Sports Fact Sheet [PDF], available through the CDC Features page on Concussions). Given that younger individuals take longer to recover from concussions, and that concussions have the potential for significant negative repurcussions, I think it's important to raise awareness of the dangers that concussions pose - particularly now that there is physical evidence for the damage caused by multiple incidents (even if only through posthumous tissue research).
Here are some links to more information:
Coaches Took Kit from the CDC
Concussion-Resistant Helmets article from Wired
Tau & Alzheimers article from MSN
Tau protein article in Wikipedia