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Research: New Ways to Detect, Prevent Head Trauma in Football Players

A new method may be able to detect subtle changes in brain health over the course of a season and a common supplement is shown to treat injury.

Research from Texas Christian University suggests that some degree of head trauma occurs in American football athletes over the course of a season, even when a concussion does not, and there may be a way to lessen the dangerous effects.file000894312228

In partnership with TCU’s athletic training and sports medicine staff, including Assistant Athletic Director for Sports Medicine David Gable and team physician Michele Kirk, study author Jonathan Oliver, assistant professor of kinesiology, and colleagues found that routine head impacts experienced by TCU’s football athletes resulted in a measurable increase in a biological marker of head trauma called serum Neurofilament Light or serum NFL.

“Using novel immuno-assay technology we were able to detect subtle changes over the course of a season and report on those differences between athletes known to sustain a greater number of ‘hits,” Oliver says. “To our knowledge, we are the first to show that the hits experienced by these athletes results in a measurable increase in a peripheral biomarker of head trauma. A simple blood test can show that something is changing in the brain.”

The study, which will appear in a forthcoming issue of the Journal of Neurotrauma, found that players’ levels of serum NFL increased over the course of the season coincident with those times in which impacts increased, with the greatest increases occurring during conference play.

In a separate study, recently accepted by the journal Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, the research group investigated a possible intervention: the fatty acid Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), which is commonly found in fish oil supplements.

“DHA has received considerable attention as a possible intervention to treat traumatic brain injury,” Oliver says. “It has long been shown in animal studies that DHA has protective qualities when taken before injury. We believe ours is the first that finds this is also true in humans.”

In the study, players were given different doses of DHA and levels of serum NFL were tested throughout the season. The findings suggest that DHA, regardless of dose, reduced the levels of serum NFL, potentially protecting against the brain trauma experienced over the course of the season.

“American football is associated with the highest incidence of concussion,” Oliver says. “This research offers important new findings in the detection and possible prevention of head trauma in these athletes.”

The research team included investigators from TCU, George Mason University, John Peter Smith Hospital in Fort Worth, the University of Gothenburg in Sweden and London’s UCL Institute of Neurology.

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