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UCI Study Looks for Signs of Brain Trauma in Teenage Athletes

A UC Irvine study is conducting groundbreaking research that could potentially detect brain damage in football players earlier than currently possible.

The study is led by UCI Professor of Neurology Dr. Mark Fisher, and focuses mainly on high school football players aged 13-22 in the Orange County area. Volunteers undergo a 40-minute MRI brain scan. Scans from these athletes are then compared with scans from students who aren’t involved in the sport. Researchers search for any abnormalities in the athletes’ brains, including signs of cerebral microbleeds (CMBs) in the brain.

Arash Hosseini Jafari, a UCI graduate student and researcher in Fisher’s lab, explained why studying non-athletes’ brains is an important aspect of the study.

“CMBs are virtually nonexistent in youth,” said Jafari. “Therefore, it would be very consequential if our study shows that there is a higher prevalence of CMBs in young football players when compared to non-players.”

Discovering microbleeds in teenage athletes could help scientists understand the effects of brain trauma in adults. After years of multiple blows to the head during games, many NFL athletes have developed chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative disease that can cause brain deterioration and dementia. Currently, the only way to test for CTE is via autopsy, but according to Jafari, the study “may potentially be important in developing a diagnostic test for increased risk for CTE in living patients.”

Over the years, concussions and other head injuries in full contact sports, such as football, have become cause for concern, especially among college and professional athletes. The effects of CTE have led to some tragic incidents. In 2010, Owen Thomas, a 21-year-old lineman at the University of Pennsylvania, committed suicide. In 2012, former New England Patriots lineman Junior Seau, 43, shot himself in the chest. Both were discovered to have evidence of CTE. Most recently, autopsy reports confirmed former NFL players Tyler Sash, 27, and Ken Stabler, 69, suffered from CTE at the times of their deaths on Jan. 26 and Feb. 4 of this year, respectively.

Recently, the NFL has received criticism for its lack of initiative in solving the issue. The 2015 film “Concussion” starring Will Smith chronicles a forensic pathologist’s fight against the NFL to bring his CTE research to the public’s attention. On March 14, 2016, NFL official Jeff Miller finally recognized a correlation between football and CTE. Amid increasing public demands, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell announced on Sept. 14 that $100 million dollars will be spent on researching brain trauma effects.

One of the problems with CTE is that it can start to develop in an athlete’s teenage years, but symptoms won’t be apparent until eight years after the brain has undergone trauma. By then, it may be too late. Back in October 2010, 17-year-old Nathan Stiles was playing in the final game of his high school career. After receiving multiple hits during the game, Stiles began screaming that his head hurt. He was taken to the hospital, where he was discovered to have severe bleeding and hemorrhaging in the brain. Stiles’ conditioned worsened, and he died hours later. He had suffered from concussions in the past, and it was later revealed that his brain showed evidence of the early stages of CTE.

Through their study, the researchers at UCI hope to gain more knowledge about the damaging effects of CTE to prevent other players from suffering the same fate.

“We hope that [participants] spread the word about this research to their friends and family,” said Jafari. “Their participation…will help increase our understanding of brain diseases.”