College football players who experience repeated blows to the head may have long-term brain damage even if they never have concussions, according to a study published in PLOS One.
Researchers at Cleveland Clinic studied blood tests, brain scans, and cognitive tests to assess brain trauma in 67 football players during the 2011 football season. None of the players had concussions, but blood tests showed that five players who experienced the hardest blows to the head had higher levels of an antibody associated with brain damage. Brain scans were performed on these five players and researchers noted abnormalities that were consistent with the presence of the antibody.
All football players experience repeated hits, but without external symptoms of injury the severity of head blows are hard to gauge. Researchers say the blood tests may offer an early warning system.
Brain injuries in football players have escalated in recent years after evidence of a degenerative brain disease known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, has been found in several former pro football players, some of whom have committed suicide. CTE can cause dementia, depression and erratic behavior.
The Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy at Boston University recently reported that CTE was found in the brains of 34 out of 35 former NFL players. The disease was also found in college and high school athletes.
Much of the research into CTE has involved concussions, which can cause long-term brain damage especially if someone experiences repeated concussions. The new Cleveland study shows that even players who do not have concussions but do experience blows to the head may still be at risk for long-term brain damage.