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Using Neuroscience To Explain A Linebacker’s Subtle Brain Injury

In a well-done story, Discover Magazine describes in clear, concise detail the consequences of  our brains getting repeatedly banged around. The article is headlined “The Brain: What Happens To A Linebackers Neurons?”

The piece opens by describing the new battery of cognitive tests that the National Football League gives to players in the college draft, brainteasers such as trying to remember where different “Xs” and “Os” were positioned a page. 

The idea is to have a baseline to compare to a player’s answers after they sustain a head injury. If a player gets a concussion in a future game, he can be retested to compare his pre-concussion answers to his post-concussion ones, to gauge how badly his brain was injured. 

As our brains float around in the cerebrospinal fluid in our skulls, they get knocked around quite a bit. So how do our brains usually escape getting damaged?   

Discover Magazine illustrates that by citing research by Douglas Smith, director of the Center for Brain Injury and Repair at the University of Pennsylvania. We won’t go into all the detail, but Smith set up rat neurons on a stretchable membrane, and they developed axons, appendages that connect one neuron to another, transmitting electric signals.

When Smith directed a “controlled puff of air'” at  his “brain,” the axons were elastic and stretched, then went back to their old position.  But if he subjected his “brain” to a quick, big shot of air, the axons developed “kinks,” according to Discover Magazine. They wind up permanently damaged.

This type of damage can lead to diffuse axonal injury, which is when proteins “pile up”  on an axon, and can even burst it, Discover Magazine said. Diffuse axonal injury happens when a person’s brain is suddenly acclerated, as when someone gets whiplash.

This is apparently what happened to New York Mets outfielder Jason Bay recently. He crashed into a wall to catch a fly ball, and hurt his back and legs. He never hit his head, so a concussion was ruled out. But two days later Bay came down with a nagging headache. Team doctors now believe that Bay sustained a concussion from whiplash, from his head snapping back when he hit the wall. 

The type of mild brain injury that football players sustain again and again over the years has a cumulative effect, and the repeated stretching that axons undergo can essentially kill them “like a shorted-out circuit,” according to Discover Magazine.

There is some hope of finding drugs that can stop brain damage on the molecular level.

But at the present time, “Once a person does sustain a brain injury, there is not a lot doctors can do,” the magazine article says.  And that is the sad truth at the moment.  

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