Subconcussive Blows in High School Football: Putting Young Brains at Risk

In 2009, Larry Leverenz, Eric Nauman, and Thomas Talavage at Purdue University formed the Purdue Neurotrauma Group (PNG), and set out to study concussions in high school football. They set up a study that combined helmet sensors with fMRI brain scans and cognitive testing, hoping to figure out what happens when a player gets a concussion on the field. Instead, they uncovered something shocking and wholly unexpected. Players’ brains were significantly changing even in the absence of concussions, due to an accumulation of smaller impacts called subconcussive blows. Years of subsequent research have only confirmed their initial results-season after season, they found that about half of the players in their study that didn’t sustain concussions exhibited significant brain changes over the course of a season. They don’t yet know exactly how these brain changes relate to short or long-term cognitive damage, but when their findings are scaled across the landscape of high school football, the implications are enormous-brain changes may be occurring in some half a million teenaged athletes. However, even as public awareness of concussions and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) reaches new heights, subconcussive blows continue to fly under the radar. For the past seven years, the PNG has run their research on a shoestring budget, and now, at the end of their funding, they are running out of time and options. Meanwhile, in a few short months, 1.1 million high school football players will suit up for the start of football season.

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Catherine Caruso

About Catherine Caruso

Hailing from the suburbs of Boston MA, Catherine first realized she might have an affinity for words when, at age ten, she missed the Grand Canyon because she couldn’t put down her book (ironically, Brighty of the Grand Canyon). One fateful July she was completely sucked into Shark Week, and from there she developed a particular interest in marine biology (along with a particularly intricate color-coded Shark Week viewing schedule). She graduated with a biology degree from Wellesley College, followed by a stint working at the Marine Biological Lab in Woods Hole, MA where she found it delightfully impossible to escape science talk. Catherine also has an M.S. at the University of New Hampshire, that came with the informal title plumber/fish husbandry specialist/molecular biologist/lab technician/lab instructor/writer/editor. She completed her master's in science writing at MIT in 2016, and interned at MIT Technology Review and Scientific American MIND. In her free time, Catherine alternates between total nerd and total jock, which involves podcast listening, Wikipedia scouring, running (preferably after a soccer ball), rock climbing, and explaining the complexities of American football to unsuspecting victims. Thesis: Subconcussive Blows in High School Football: Putting Young Brains at Risk