Insane in the Membrane

A new study shows that the midbrain is the “canary in the coal mine” for brain injury, and 2/3 of the players get injured:

Data collected from 38 University of Rochester football players before and after three consecutive football seasons were analyzed for the study. The players’ brains were scanned in an MRI machine before and after a season of play, and the football helmets they wore throughout the season were equipped with impact sensors that captured all hits above 10g force sustained during practices and games. Race car drivers feel the effects of 6 gs, and car crashes can produce brief forces of more than 100 gs.

The analysis showed a significant decrease in the integrity of the midbrain white matter following just one season of football as compared to the preseason. While only two players suffered clinically diagnosed concussions during the time they were followed in the study, the comparison of the post- and pre-season MRIs showed more than two-thirds of the players experienced a decrease in the structural integrity of their brain.

The research team also found that the amount of white matter damage was correlated with the number of hits to the head players sustained, and that rotational acceleration (when the head twists from side to side or front to back) was linked more strongly and more consistently to changes in white matter integrity than linear acceleration (head-on impact).

“Public perception is that the big hits are the only ones that matter,” said senior study author Brad Mahon, an associate professor of psychology at Carnegie Mellon University and Scientific Director of the Program for Translational Brain Mapping at the University of Rochester. “The big hits are definitely bad, but the public is likely missing what’s causing the long-term damage in players’ brains. It’s not just the concussions. It’s everyday hits, too. And the place to look for the effect of such hits, our study suggests, is the midbrain.”

Our tolerance for amusement that injures seems pretty high (guns are a great example), but why would any parent who has a choice want their kid to play football?

41 replies
  1. 1
    mrmoshpotato says:

    Insane in the brain!

  2. 2
    randy khan says:

    Coincidentally, there’s a recent study that found that professional baseball players tend to live longer than the average American. Of course, they don’t get hit in the head on a regular basis, either, or have their knees ruined nearly as often as football players.

  3. 3
    JMG says:

    I played football and purely loved it. Intensely satisfying. But I’m old now, and for decades have been damn glad I wasn’t good enough at it to play past high school.

  4. 4
    The Moar You Know says:

    but why would any parent who has a choice want their kid to play football?

    i can’t imagine. Even minus the brain damage, the culture surrounding football (bullying, sexual assault, oh I could go on and on and on) is something that I certainly would not want my kid exposed to, never mind participating in.

    I used to be a huge pro football fan. Michael Vick’s Slaughterhouse Of Innocent Dogs and his utterly predictable rehiring by the NFL the day he got out of prison ended that forever for me. I swore I’d never watch another game and haven’t.

    Then, our local guy, a decent dude who was truly the only star to ever come out of our local team, Junior Seau, killed himself. So far as I can tell as a direct result of football-caused brain damage. And that was when I decided that, much like boxing, this is a “sport” that just needs to end. As in “nobody play it ever again”.

    The United States outlawed metal-tipped lawn darts after one child got killed by one. Why are we still allowing kids to play football?

  5. 5
    Jharp says:

    I lost my college roommate and friend of nearly 50 years to suicide last year.

    He played linebacker and fullback and what he lacked in speed he made up for by using his head as a battering ram. Fours years of High School football and one year of division 2 college football.

    He was smart, well educated, handsome, and had two great kids.

    I have little doubt he suffered from CTE but we will never know for sure as he shot himself in the head.


  6. 6

    @The Moar You Know:

    The United States outlawed metal-tipped lawn darts after one child got killed by one. Why are we still allowing kids to play football?

    I assume this is a rhetorical question. The sad part is that nobody would approve of American football as a sport if it were proposed today, but it’s so entrenched in society that we can’t get rid of it even recognizing how destructive it is.

  7. 7

    @The Moar You Know:

    Why are we still allowing kids to play football?

    Football teams are champions, in the old-fashioned ‘warrior representing our honor’ sense. It’s why they are allowed to get away with so much, not just by schools and team owners, but communities. They represent their community’s desire to win, and the privileges their community thinks they themselves deserve.

  8. 8
    debbie says:

    @The Moar You Know:

    My nephew played football in high school. He played both defense and offense (in addition to baseball and basketball). Both shoulders were dislocated (in separate incidents) which required three surgeries. Then his parents decided he should quit football. He kept playing baseball, until there was some sort of ankle injury, requiring a fourth surgery. This cost him a baseball scholarship.

    I say, fuck high school sports.

  9. 9
    AThornton says:

    “Because it is part of the culture” goes a long way to explaining why people do stupid things to their kids.

  10. 10
    PenAndKey says:

    I’ve already told my nine year old son and family that my wife and I both flat out refuse to allow him to play football specifically because of this danger. That’s fine since he’s like me and more into video games, but it’s been a fight with the relatives. They can’t seem to understand that as a parent I don’t want my kid engaging in a hobby that causes physical brain damage. Shocking, I know.

  11. 11
    laura says:

    Won’t somebody think of the poor billionaire owners with other’s skin in the game, enriching themselves using the money of American cities to pay for their $29.00 strip mall rub and tug?

  12. 12


    enriching themselves using the money of American cities to pay for their $29.00 strip mall rub and tug?

    Trickle Down Economics.

  13. 13
    Harbison says:

    Firearms, properly used, do not result in injury or death to people- except in situations of combat or self defense.

    Football, properly played, results in head injuries. 300-600 pounds in of humans colliding with one another at running speed will result in injuries.

    People who watch it are as barbaric as people who play it are stupid/desperate.

  14. 14
    Mandalay says:


    People who watch it are as barbaric as people who play it are stupid/desperate.

    Oooh…so edgy.

  15. 15
    oatler. says:

    @Harbison: @Harbison: Americans love football as long as there isn’t any nudity or pot-smoking. And we love commercials for piss-poor beer.

  16. 16
    germy says:

    You guys are going to piss off Raven with these comments.

  17. 17
    germy says:


    Firearms, properly used,

    The firearm used in the El Paso slaughter was used properly. Meaning the purpose of that firearm was to kill as many people in as short a time as possible.

    It’s not like cutting steak with a butter knife, or trying to use a screwdriver handle as a hammer.

  18. 18
    Gin & Tonic says:

    Of course that moron shows up in this thread.

  19. 19
    Martin says:

    @laura: C’mon, that’s unfair. Robert Kraft’s rub and tug was definitely more than $30.

  20. 20
    Martin says:


    Americans love football as long as there isn’t any nudity or pot-smoking kneeling.

  21. 21
    Karen says:

    Not all parents but some parents see their child is their money ticket. From school to NFL.

  22. 22
    geg6 says:

    *studiously refusing to engage the troll*

    Been a football fan all my life, mostly pro and, obviously a Steeler fan. I still find myself watching when at someone’s house or in a bar or if my John is home. But I have lost my great love for it and watch less and less. The sour taste started when we watched Mike Webster lose his mind and die a terrible, tragic death. He lived locally, as did his estranged ex-wife and kids and we’d see him around. People tried to help him (giving him no-show jobs and such) but CTE wasn’t a thing yet and he was a stubborn guy, even as he went downhill. So he just declined and declined and died. It disturbed me and I couldn’t imagine that football hadn’t played a role in his death. Then a few years later, I saw a segment on HBO’s Real Sports about the brain studies being done on football players who had passed away by a doctor at UMass (????) and that really freaked me out. That’s got to be over a decade ago now, but it was probably those two things that started bothering me enough that I have lost my pure love of the game. I now watch more hockey, but I’m not sure it’s much better. I really should look into that. Though I can say that a lot of former Penguins stayed in the area after retirement and I don’t see a lot of them having the problems that footballs players and former players do. But now I need to do some research before taking anecdotal evidence seriously.

  23. 23
    laura says:

    @Martin: I like to keep my cheap shots handy when it comes to public welfare for private gain, especially at the expense of young people.

  24. 24
    laura says:

    Lyle Alzado shopped at and used the pharmacy where I worked back in my glamorous grocery clerking days. Watching him die slowly was awful.

  25. 25
    chopper says:


    Firearms, properly used, do not result in injury or death to people

    right. those AR-15s were designed for hunting varmints, right?

  26. 26
    Jager says:

    I played hockey from the time I was 5 years old through high school. We wore shitty helmets, no cages or visors. The mouth guards were useless so we didn’t wear them. In my sophomore year, I lost three lower front teeth, my Junior year I broke my nose and screwed up my knee and had to sit out 4 games. In my senior year, both of my front teeth were broken in half by an errant stick. I added up all the money I’ve spent on my teeth over the years, it’s pushing a 100k. The three lower teeth I lost caused me to lose 2 more, implants, etc, same on the top row. In the “olden” days you weren’t a player until you lost your god damn teeth. A friend of mine has two grandsons on the US Development Team, they’ve been wearing cages since they started, beautiful teeth. Their grandpa and I both had bridges in our mouths when we were their age.
    Considering all the stupid shit I’ve done in my life I probably had brain damage too.

  27. 27
    geg6 says:


    That’s exactly how it felt watching Mike Webster’s slow and painful death.

  28. 28
    tokyokie says:

    @geg6: CTE not only is an obvious problem in football and boxing, it also is one in ice hockey, and to a lesser extent, soccer (from heading the ball). I no longer can stand to watch NFL football because I know several of the players I’ll see are going to incur brain injuries that lead to miserable deaths for the enjoyment of those watching.

  29. 29
    Searcher says:

    @Harbison: I’m actually curious if you could solve this problem by just putting arbitrary weight-limits on football players — something low, like 200 lbs.

    I kind of assume that if we weren’t selecting the most extreme examples of the human physique and bashing them into each other, it would be safer.

  30. 30
    Harbison says:

    Beats me but I’m doubt it. Two 200 pound guys running at 20 mph is a serious impact. And the whole point of 350 lb lineman is to multiply this

    Even if you made it flag football, you’d have to eliminate the line of scrimmage and blocking and that would be a different game

    Many Americans love violence. I remember when “ Hits of the week” was the highlight reel of the carnage for fans of “smash mouth” football. Now the NFL doesn’t do that and fans have to turn to YouTube and such places to quench their ghoulish obsession

  31. 31
    Harbison says:

    Some people use them for that but I don’t think the AR platform is accurate enough to hit small targets beyond 100 yards and is often questionable then so it’s a bad choice for varmints.

    And the key here is “properly”. I could take my Ford F-350 and head into a crowd at 60 miles an hour and probably kill a hundred people. But that wouldn’t be a proper use of that fine vehicle just like mass murder isn’t a proper is of firearms

  32. 32
    cmorenc says:

    but why would any parent who has a choice want their kid to play football?

    Because in many towns across America, being on the football team confers automatic “in” status with “cool kids” at school, and makes team members each more of a chick magnet (at least in their own minds) than they would be if they werent’ on the team. In addion to the parents thinking these would be nice attributes for their son to have, the parents enjoy the reflected glory and “in” status that having a kid on the tteam brings to them in the community.

    No, I don’t think the benefits listed above are worth the risk of any significant degree of long-term brain damage from playing

    I recommend they instead sign the kid up for the real football, the contact sport they play without any pads except small shin guards, the most popular sport by far across the rest of the world outside the U.S, – soccer. Might even be worth serious professional money by the time he’s 18-22yo if he’s good enough (especially if he’s good enough to play in one of Europe’s strongest Premier Leagues)

  33. 33
    What Have The Romans Ever Done for Us? says:

    I got hit my a car on Monday biking to work. Lady just turned left right into me as I was oncoming. I didn’t run a stop sign or stoplight or anything. So far I seem to have escaped serious injury despite hitting the hood of the car and windshield hard enough to leave a dent and two big spiderweb cracks in the windshield. I distinctly remember feeling the back of my helmet hit the windshield. I didn’t lose consciousness but did get checked out at the ER – they did a head and neck CT that came back normal. Have not been having headaches or anything but I have been tiring easily. Hopefully the noggin is OK. Hope I don’t suffer any more blows like that. Concussion or not it’s pretty psychologically traumatizing to get hit by a car especially if you aren’t being protected by your own big metal cage on wheels.

  34. 34
    randy khan says:

    I stopped watching boxing after seeing a particular brutal fight involving Boom Boom Mancini (and, no, not the fight that immediately comes to mind, luckily). It was just so awful, and made worse by the excitement of the announcers.

    I am increasingly finding myself feeling the same way about football. Which is a pity in some ways, because there are some real moments of beauty and grace in the game, but it’s harder and harder to see them amidst the carnage.

  35. 35
    Another Scott says:

    @cmorenc: As Tokyokie said above, soccer isn’t immune.

    SciAm – Does heading a soccer ball cause brain damage? (from 2014):

    What’s the scientific evidence for whether heading a soccer ball can cause brain damage?

    Our findings and the findings of other researchers show that heading a soccer ball can contribute to neurodegenerative problems, such as chronic traumatic encephalopathy. Researchers who’ve followed soccer players have seen a close relationship between the amount of heading that a player does and brain abnormalities. There’ve also been studies where researchers compared soccer players to swimmers, and swimmers’ brains look perfectly normal while the soccer players’ brains had abnormalities in their white matter fiber tracts. Nerve cells transmit their messages to other nerve cells by way of their fiber tracts, or axons, and if the brain is violently shaken enough, a person can have disruption of their fiber tracts.


    American football is horrible in what it does to players. I wondered decades ago whether football players should be outfitted with something like giant soft ‘hamster balls’ that they ran around inside… Either that, or they should have the pros play flag football instead.

    Boxing and “ultimate fighting” are even worse, of course. :-(


  36. 36
    StringOnAStick says:

    @Another Scott: I had a dental patient once who was into MMA fighting. He couldn’t lay in the dental chair for more than 10 minutes because he had so much back pain.

    We have a friend who played high school football in TX where high school football rules all. He told us he’s get such bad headaches that he’d find a remote field to go scream at the pain. I’ll bet it comes back to haunt him as he ages.

    I hate all these gladiator sports and the long term damage they cause.

  37. 37
    Amir Khalid says:


    Firearms, properly used, do not result in injury or death to people- except in situations of combat or self defense.

    And what, pray, is the proper use of a firearm — other than to cause injury and death?

  38. 38
    cmorenc says:

    @Another Scott:

    SciAm – Does heading a soccer ball cause brain damage? (from 2014):

    I have refereed around 2500 soccer games over a 23 year soccer-ref career, from recreational up to higher levels of competitive travel socer, plus adults at various skill/competitive levels. The overwhelming majority of player injuries from heading occer when two opponents are contesting for an incoming air-ball, and collide heads as they both go for it.

    That said, kids who are not taught the proper techniques for heading are more at risk of getting hurt from awkwardly unskilled encounters with balls incoming at velocity than skilled players who know how to gracefully execute a controlled header. The requisite skills are most likely to be properly trained for kids who play at the competitive travel soccer level.

  39. 39
    Brachiator says:

    Americans named baseball as the most popular sport in 1948 and 1960, but football claimed the top spot in 1972 and has been the public’s favorite ever since.

    I blame Nixon.

  40. 40
    Procopius says:


    … firearms, properly used …

    In my signals battalion in Vietnam, in one year we had two suicides at the headquarters company. Because we were in a low-intensity combat area we kept our M-16s and a basic load in our personal foot-lockers for quick access. I don’t know how combat units do it. We never really found out why the guys killed themselves. Neither one had showed signs of depression. If the guns had been kept in an arsenal, as in garrison units (e.g., Germany) I doubt they would have done it.

  41. 41
    Harbison says:

    @Amir Khalid:

    And what, pray, is the proper use of a firearm — other than to cause injury and death?

    Here’s what I wrote:

    Firearms, properly used, do not result in injury or death to people- except in situations of combat or self defense.

    I’ve probably fired over 150,000 rounds through shotguns (99% at clays and 1% or less at birds/rabbits), tens of thousands of rounds through rifles (again 99% or more at paper/steel) and tens of thousands of rounds through pistols (all at paper/steel) and I’ve never once killed or injured a person.

    I shoot more than most people but if you figure that there are 300 millions guns in the US then something like 99.99999% of guns aren’t used to kill or injure people.

    It’s strange that otherwise reasonably smart people can say something as demonstrably false as: The only purpose of guns is to kill or injure people. Some people just can’t think rationally when firearms are involved.

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