With the news of Aaron Hernandez’s post-mortem brain autopsy being recently released, the sports community and general public are starting to wonder if the hard-hits of football and other sports are causing longer-term damage than we once believed. Researchers at Boston University found evidence of serious chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the worst that they had ever seen in a 27-year-old brain. What is CTE? How is it caused? And most importantly, is there anything we can do to prevent it?
CTE is a progressively degenerative disease that can only be diagnosed post-mortem by the atrophy and deterioration of certain areas of the brain. It occurs in people who are constantly receiving concussions or other forms of traumatic brain injuries. A biological understanding of how a concussion occurs is important to understanding why such severe CTE damage can happen with repeated blows to the head.
Picture: CTE Damage compared to a normal brain. Significant atrophy can be observed.
A high impact blow to the head causes the cell membranes of your brain cells to stretch and allow ions to pass which are not normally allowed to pass. This causes the cells to try and pump the ions out to regenerate their previous equilibrium. While doing this, cells are using high levels of energy to run the pumps which results in an energy crisis in the brain.
If a second concussion is experienced within the time span where the brain is still in an energy crisis, there can be very grim results. In rats, research has found that if a second concussion happens within 3 days of the first concussion, memory impairment is significantly greater than if a second concussion is experienced after 5 days. If more than 5 days separates the two concussions, then they act as 2 separate concussions, rather than one large one. This research supports the current return to play rules that have athletes sit out for 10-12 days after a concussion before returning to their sport.
What can we do to help prevent or lessen the severity of a concussion?
- For people participating in sports, it is important that they wear protective headgear. Whether the sport is soccer, football, cycling, or other high impact sports, there are many options out there that can lessen the impact on the head and decrease the risk of concussion.
- After receiving a concussion, it is important to take yourself out of situations were another concussion could occur. As demonstrated in rats, there is a period of recovery in your brain where your brain needs to rest and heal itself. Receiving a concussion during this time will significantly worsen the outcome and healing process.
- Research has indicated that consuming omega-3 fatty acids either before or after concussion can help in recovery time. Omega-3 fatty acids can be found in fish.
There is no cure for concussions. There is no magic powder that can restore the brain to the way that it was before brain injury. For those participating in high-contact sports, caution needs to be exercised in preventing head injury so that one concussion doesn’t lead to the life-long problems of CTE.
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Featured image is a photograph taken by the author of her brother heading the ball during a soccer game.