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The Mystery of When Brains and Sports Collide with Kiki Sanford


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What happens to your brain when you get a concussion? It's common to get hit in the head when you play rough or risky sports. Everyone knows a concussion makes you woozy for a while. But the impacts of repeated concussions can last much longer. American football players have helped scientists unravel a mystery that could change the way that sports are played.

Photo of football players

Repeated concussions can trigger a brain disease called Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE). In the episode, we talk about how professional football players donated their brains to science. Scientists at the Boston University CTE Center found evidence of CTE in 90 out of 94 football players brains. That was a big sign that something was wrong. Now, some football players are deciding to leave the game over fear of developing this disease.

Here's how slices of brain with CTE look compared to a normal brain slice. Scientists have "stained" these brains, so that the fibery tau proteins can be seen. Tau proteins are a sign of the disease.

Brain slices. photo credit: Boston University CTE center

The brain on the far left is a normal brain section, the middle brain belongs to a former NFL linebacker, and the brain on the right belongs to a world champion boxer. The boxes underneath is a closeup of the tau proteins. You can see that with more damage, there are more tau proteins. These changes in the brain can start months, or even years after the athlete stops playing. The signs of the disease can vary, but they get worse with age. According to Boston University, the symptoms are memory loss, confusion, impaired judgment, impulse control problems, aggression, depression, and, eventually, progressive dementia.

To find out more about CTE and how it works, watch this video from Stat News. Or this one from DNews.

Many football players and their parents are getting worried about how playing the sport might affect their lives. Is it safe to play football as a kid, even if you love it? One of our favorite podcasts, Radiolab, has a great story about a mom and her son who struggle to answer this question. You can listen here.

So what about solutions? Scientists and engineers are working hard to find materials and make equipment to help sports become safer. What about putting the same material that's used for bulletproof vests on football and hockey players? Read about it here. Biomechanical engineers (that's a combination of biology and mechanical engineering) are developing new materials to put into helmets that would lessen the force of impact. Read about that here!

Scientists are also working to develop a test that can identify CTE in living athletes. If they can diagnose the disease earlier, it's a step toward creating a treatment that might help delay the disease's progression before the symptoms start. Find out more here.

Don't forget to send us your drawings and designs!! We want to know how you would protect your head during sports and accidents! Email us here.

Check out Dr. Kiki's podcast, This Week in Science! Her show is an hour each week about interesting science research news! Parents, it's probably best listening for older kids.

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