November 7, 2009

Your Brain on Football (er...collisions)

My only real source of consistent news these days - outside of medical school and word-of-mouth from friends and family - is the New Yorker magazine. When I began medical school I decided 2 things: 1) I wanted some sort of news source that would be shorter articles, entertaining, current, and involved in many spheres of life besides medicine 2) the new yorker had a big recession-style sale on subscriptions (and they threw in a free umbrella).

One story that particularly struck me recently was a report by Malcolm Gladwell on the impact of football (and boxing) on the brain. Gladwell talks with Dr. Ann McKee who runs the research program at the VA in Boston looking at brains of sports players found strange brain patterns in autopsies of football players (specifically linemen) and boxers. The patterns include scarring on the front and back of the brain - where it's been hit against the skull) as well as tissue blockage patterns that are more severe than she has seen in the brains of people who had Alzheimer's.

He also talks to researchers at UNC who have figured out how to put sensors in the football helmets of the players that record the force of each hit they take. The force is measured in how many times the force of gravity it is (e.g. 76g = 76 times the force of gravity). These guys - who are not even professional football players - were regularly taking 60g, 70g hits - in practice and in games. The researchers said it has been incredibly revealing because concussions often occur after a much smaller hit (23g, for example) even though the 70g hit the guy took in practice earlier that week didn't knock him out. It has led them to conclude that concussions do cumulative damage.

Gladwell talks briefly with the Chairman of the NFL about possible fixes to what seems to be proof that football, specifically the lineman position, is severely hurting people's brains. The thing is, the chairman says, football's not going anywhere, and as long as people love it, boys will grow up wanting to play it. We've thought about limiting professional careers to <6 years, but that's really just when a player starts to get valuable. So it's tough.

I'm not sure if there is solution to this - but I know that if I have sons (or daughters), I'm definitely not supporting any dreams of being a center.

"some people think football is a matter of life or death. I assure you it's more serious than that." - Bill Shankley (*he was talking about the other football)

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