Scientists have confirmed that former NFL linebacker, Junior Seau, suffered from a chronic brain injury prior to killing himself in May. Purdue researchers who study brain injuries in football say the finding isn’t surprising, but could be very important for educating players and parents.
“I was not surprised,” said Tom Talavage, a member of the Purdue Neurotrauma Group.
Talavage says Seau’s death coincides with research he has done regarding hits to the head in football. According to the study of Seau’s brain, he suffered from a degenerative disease typically caused by multiple hits to the head.
“Concussions, per se, as an entity, aren’t actually the critical factor,” Talavage said. “Junior Seau, in his life, in his career, was never officially diagnosed with having a concussion.”
Talavage says he and other researchers have found that the number of hits is much more important.
“It is that everyday blow, that constant hammering on the head that these players are taking that is ultimately, very likely to be the cause,” Talavage said.
For several years Purdue researchers have been tracking those types of hits, the majority of which happen in practice. The university has also worked with local high school teams to monitor the impact those hits have on players’ brains throughout the season. In order to do so, players agreed to have their brains scanned with MRI machines while completing a few cognitive tasks.
The first MRI scans showed how players’ brains activated for long and short-term processing. Normal brain function wouldn’t show much difference each time the tasks were reproduced, but when the players repeated the testing after taking hits during the season the brain activity changed significantly each time.
“Now we have a really notable change across the brain where almost all of that activation preference is disappeared,” Talavage said, while showing the last MRI scan from the season. “And that’s really not very good.”
Talavage told Fox59 that the testing showed brain activation fell more and more as the number of hits increased, regardless of concussion symptoms. He says it’s a major reason why they are now pushing for less hitting in practices throughout the course of a season.
He says parents who are worried about their children’s level of contact should ask questions.
“I think the biggest thing is parents need to just be involved,” Talavage said. “If they are at a practice and they are seeing something they don’t really think is productive or not terribly useful, it’s at least going down and having a discussion.”
Talavage still believes football can be safe. He points to MRI scans that showed how many players recovered their brain activity after the season was over. He says the key appears to be limiting contact in practice and teaching good tackling technique.
“Get people to focus on, essentially, fundamental football,” he said. “Make that change so that we don’t have another generation of players who are ultimately having these types of long-term problems.”