Matt Vettoretti had a decision to make before the last game of his high-school football season.
The Grade 11 receiver was feeling woozy the day after taking a big hit in practice. He had a terrible headache and a persisting feeling that he may vomit at any moment. It was game day, and a playoff spot was on the line, but as the day wore on, he knew he had to talk to his coach.
Frank Rocca, head coach at St. Benedict Catholic Secondary School in Sudbury, listened to his young pass-catcher and decided he would sit out. The player was crushed, but after an off-season of rest and doctor visits, he recovered and was ready to play again.
“When I see a kid’s parents in the local grocery store, I better be able to look them in the eye and know I did what was right for their son,” Mr. Rocca said.
Concussion awareness in sports is spreading against the backdrop of news about researchers finding chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in the brains of dead football players. In addition, there have been recent reports about suicides by athletes in both hockey and football who had previously suffered concussions.
Still, not every teenager would make the same call as Matt Vettoretti did in this tough-minded sport. Further, an ongoing study in Indiana shows a different class of football players altogether: those playing with neurological injury and no symptoms to tip them off.
Small hits, big impact
An ongoing study by researchers at Purdue University is finding startling results when analyzing the brain activity of high-school football players and they hope to devise a safe hit count for young players, similar to the concept in baseball of limiting the number of pitches a pitcher can throw in a game.
Beyond the bone-rattling hits, games are filled with hundreds of smaller blows. The Purdue research team, made up of experts in biomedical and mechanical engineering, neurosurgery and kinesiology, have found that sort of lighter but repetitive contact can also harm the brain.
Their study, which is continuing over several football seasons, made headlines last fall when it found players with no concussion symptoms often showed neurological impairment equal to or greater than their concussed teammates.
The researchers put six small sensors known as accelerometers in helmets of high-school football players in Indiana. Those sensors measured the magnitude of the head blows in G's (gravitational forces) and wirelessly sent that data to laptops on the sidelines. They tested the players’ neurological abilities before, during and after the season by giving them the ImPACT test -- a computer exam which evaluates memory and focus -- and took scans of their brains activity using a functional MRI (fMRI).
They measured hits from 14Gs up to a jaw-dropping 300Gs on occasion. They found that as the season wore on, several players were suffering measurable declines in their working memory and in visual memory.
Without symptoms, players have no idea they should see a doctor, no clue that continuing to play with such impairment puts them at risk for further brain injury.
“We’re pretty convinced that what we’re seeing is the beginning of a path, that doesn’t in all cases lead to CTE, but to some sort of neurological damage that has some potential to persist,” said Thomas Talavage, a biomedical engineer on the research team.
But there’s encouraging news too. As their research published in the Journal of Neurotrama shows, observing such players after a week of rest or an off-season showed brains that had healed considerably.
“If they could come in after just one week off and suddenly look more normal on the tests, we are clearly looking at something that appears to be a short-term injury,” Dr. Talavage said. “It can be overcome with some level of rest.”
The Purdue researchers have not yet analyzed this season’s data in which they have also added a girls’ soccer team and a second football team. But interestingly, they have noticed that the number and magnitude of the hits recorded by two football teams – despite a great disparity in success and level of competition between them – are strikingly similar.