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NFL players’ brains take a hit

Brain scans reveal hidden abnormalities in retired football pros

BIG HIT  Repeated hits to the head over the course of a football player's career can leave lasting damage to the brain.

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A punishing football career leaves a legacy in the brain. By revealing signs of brain damage in 13 retired NFL players, a brain-scanning study is the latest to show the effects of repeated hits to the head.

The former NFL players performed almost normally on a tricky logic problem that relies on spatial perception and planning. But functional MRI brain scans uncovered changes that the behavioral test missed. Compared with people who didn’t suffer blows to the head, retired NFL players had abnormally high brain activity while doing the logic problem in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, an area involved in planning and control. And the timing of activity in other brain regions was off, suggesting that these regions failed to work in concert as they should. The more often a player had been pulled from a game for head injuries, the more pronounced these differences.

Hits on the field can cause repeated mild traumatic brain injury, which puts players at risk for neurological problems later in life, neuroscientist Adrian Owen of the University of Western Ontario in Canada and colleagues write October 17 in Scientific Reports.

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