Concussions: Lots Of Ink, More To Come

Almost every week I receive at least one email containing information about concussion-related research.
Man in helmet and shades.
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Chris Gorski, Editor

Almost every week I receive at least one email containing information about concussion-related research, connected to other sports or to the military. It's a substantial component in contemporary coverage of NFL football, for example.

Inside Science has covered the topic before, with both a news service story about how football and battlefield explosions both "rattle the brain in similar ways" and a video about research that may help develop a better football helmet

When sports agents such as Lee Steinberg are writing about their doubts that professional football will last far into the future, it's clear that head injuries and their lingering effects are no longer a fringe issue. The recent suicides of retired players Junior Seau and Dave Duerson, as well as ongoing lawsuits and rising concern for the safety of today's professionals and young players all serve to keep the subject in the headlines. 

Please read on for a sampling of recent research projects, which highlights the activity in this popular study area.

Engineers at Johns Hopkins University developed a mathematical model that can help identify the conditions that lead to dangerous impacts. From the press release:

"Concussion-related injuries can develop even when nothing has physically touched the head, and no damage is apparent on the skin," said K. T. Ramesh, the Alonzo G. Decker Jr. Professor of Science and Engineering who led the research at Johns Hopkins. "Think about a soldier who is knocked down by the blast wave of an explosion, or a football player reeling after a major collision. The person may show some loss of cognitive function, but you may not immediately see anything in a CT-scan or MRI that tells you exactly where and how much damage has been done to the brain. You don’t know what happened to the brain, so how do you figure out how to treat the patient?" 

Earlier this year, UCLA researchers published a small study promising to be the first evidence of detection of the tau proteins associated with Alzheimer's disease. This is notable because previously, these proteins could only be detected during an autopsy. The imaging technique, which uses a dye that attaches to the tau proteins and can be seen in positron emission tomography, or PET scan, may allow physicians to better understand how a related condition, chronic traumatic encephalopathy develops.

Research released today, March 12th, suggests that even a single concussion "may cause lasting brain damage," as published in the journal Radiology by researchers from the NYU Langone School of Medicine. 

Last week, research published in PLoS One suggested that concussions may be an autoimmune phenomenon. The researchers, from the Cleveland Clinic and University of Rochester Medical Clinic, say the connection may even hint at the possibility of a vaccine or drug therapy that might inhibit head injuries.

The NFL is also involved in concussion research and prevention. In fact, since I began working on this short blog entry, I received an email alerting me to a newly launched $60 million collaboration between the NFL, General Electric Co., and Under Armour, "to help better protect athletes against concussions and identify brain injuries." In addition, the NFL announced that they'll also be working with the U.S. Army and the NCAA. More details can be found here.

For more information on concussion diagnosis, treatment, and getting back on the field, please check out this pamphlet from the American College of Sports Medicine.

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Chris Gorski is the Senior Editor of Inside Science. Follow him on twitter at @c_gorski.