Many major media outlets have been reporting on Kosta Karageorge, the Ohio State football player who was found in a trash bin dead of a suspected self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. Many are suspecting traumatic brain injury as the cause of this tragic event. Karageorge had a history of numerous concussions. This is not the first story of concussions and trauma to the brain, nor will it be the last. It is just not healthy for strong, 300-pound men to repeatedly crash into each other and not expect there to be damage somewhere. Repeated head banging does not do a body good, especially the control center, the brain. How many football players in their advanced years think normally? How many younger players are damaging their brains and may not even be aware … yet.
One million young men play high school football and 50,000 play football in college. Two recent studies have tried to quantitate the injury to the brains of these young athletes. Some of the players had diagnosed concussions, while others did not show symptoms that the brain may not be functioning normally. The first study, from Purdue University, used MRI scans to evaluate cognitive impairment in high school players. The study design allowed real time study of various brain pathways and evaluated how the brain responds to stimuli that included vision, hearing, and thinking. The athletes were evaluated in the pre-season and then in the off-season. Those with concussions were noted in the study. One-half of those without concussions showed persistent defects in cognition and other deficiencies in working memory, processing, and vision. Those with known concussions were more likely to exhibit behavioral defects attributed to damage in areas of the brain that process language. The research documents the damage from repeated subclinical brain trauma during one football season. They found worse function in athletes with concussions and those who played on the line. How much damage was done that has not yet been detected can only be imagined. These athletes were still in the brain- developing years.
A University of Tulsa study showed that the volume of the hippocampus— the brain’s search engine involved in short term memory, memory retrieval, as well as memory for sight, smell, and emotion—lost up to 25 percent in volume in football players. The longer the career in the sport, the more brain loss in the hippocampus. Losing brain cells is never good. If more studies are done, I am sure the results will be reproducible. These studies probably vastly underestimate the brain damage from repeated jostling of the body’s most important organ in a confined space.
Hopefully Kosta’s tragedy will help the world understand the dangers and serve as a wake-up call, as well as a call to action. Football is a big business, but even if changes to the system are slow, athletes, parents, coaches, and physicians must be aware of the extreme danger. Who knows what the effects will be years from now? The alarm has sounded!