White House sports summit: Subconcussive blows damage kids' brains

Washington, DC - Five years of probing the brains of teenage football players reveals a disturbing truth - more than half of those who never sustain a concussion suffer lingering cognitive disability because of repeated subconcussive blows to the head.

The Purdue University Neurotrauma Group has been examining the brains of scores of high school football players over the past five seasons and discovered that the hundreds of hits these players take to the head each season has an immediate and lingering detrimental effect on how their brains function.

Biomedical engineering professor Tom Talavage says fMRI exams reveal that even in athletes never diagnosed with concussions, activity in portions of the brain most prone to impacts begins to shut down, and basic cognitive tasks become more difficult to perform even in the course of one high school season.

"Just increasing efforts to improve concussion diagnosis or even prevent concussions is a waste of time and taxpayer money," Talavage said. "We need to figure out how to reduce the number of hits to these kids' heads."

Purdue research using helmet sensors and sideline computers revealed that high school players receive up to 1,800 hits to the head per season, some ranging as high in force as 250 Gs. Purdue engineer Eric Nauman, who will be at the White House summit on Thursday (May 29), has developed new helmet and liner technology that reduces the impact to the brain by 50 percent. Talavage also suggests fewer contact drills during practices and a baseball-style "hit count" that, when exceeded, automatically sidelines a player.

"Current helmet technology, which has hardly improved over the past 40 years, was designed to prevent skull fractures," Nauman said. "It does a good job at that, but the helmets were never designed to significantly protect the brain itself."

Purdue Neurotrauma Group research on football concussions has been featured in Sports Illustrated, on ESPN, HBO Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel, PBS Frontline and NOVA, NBC Nightly News, CNN, BBC and others. 

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