Study: Brain damage in young football players often undetected

- We may like watching football, but when parents think about their kids playing it it's often a different story. The more doctors study the brains of football players, the more frightening the sport becomes. 

A new study reveals that changes in the brain are showing up in football players at an alarmingly young age - and that the damage often goes undetected. 

After playing football most of his life, Austen Rankin decided it was time to hang up his cleats. 

"I definitely had some concussions that weren't diagnosed probably in middle school, high school, but in college I had one that was diagnosed," he explains.

While concussions are a major concern, a new study suggests every tackle and hit may have an impact on players' brains. The study tested college football players for biomarkers in the blood that detect concussions.

"It was most interesting and a little shocking that they were elevated even before the season started," says Dr. Linda Papa. She led the study at Orlando Health in collaboration with the concussion neuroimaging consortium, and says this means that damage is not only present but is persisting over time. 

Researchers also conducted cognitive tests on athletes before and after the season, and found that those who struggled with things like balance and memory had higher levels of the biomarkers in their blood, even if they had never had a concussion.

Dr. Papa says this suggests that repeated blows to the head may cause injuries that aren't severe enough to be diagnosed as a concussion, but are still doing damage.

"Validating patients' symptoms is an important part of this, and saying, 'No, we know that you've had an injury. We have the biomarker level that has shown us that you've had an injury. Now we need to help you,'" she says. 

And while steps like better helmets and concussion protocols have helped reduce concussions in recent years, it's important to recognize the impact of every hit. For Austen, it meant leaving football behind and focusing on his future.

"I kind of wanted to get myself out of that situation and into something where I could succeed and start what I want to do for the rest of my life early," he says.

Experts say they hope that in the near future, blood tests will be able to show exactly what level of concussion someone has to ensure that those lower-level brain injuries are recognized and treated. 

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