Brain scans reveal long-term impact of football on former NFL players

NFL Players (Image via Associated Press)
NFL Players (Image via Associated Press)

In a groundbreaking study by Johns Hopkins Medicine, researchers have unveiled startling findings about the long-term effects of football on brain health, particularly in former NFL players.

Utilizing advanced brain imaging techniques, the study, published in JAMA Network Open, reveals a sustained presence of a repair protein in the brain, indicative of long-lasting injury and repair processes. It is far beyond the end of players' active careers in collision sports.


Uncovering the hidden dangers of NFL players

NFL Players (Image via Associated Press)
NFL Players (Image via Associated Press)

The focus of the study is the 18 kDa translocator protein (TSPO), a marker typically elevated in response to traumatic brain injury, such as a concussion. In former NFL players, high levels of TSPO were observed long after their retirement, suggesting an ongoing state of brain injury and repair.

The discovery is significant, as it highlights the potentially severe and enduring impacts of repeated head traumas, a common occurrence in football. The study compared the brain scans of 27 former NFL athletes with those of non-collision sports athletes. It sheds light on the distinct neurological differences stemming from sports involving frequent impacts.


Cognitive impacts and memory concerns

The research presents a concerning correlation between higher TSPO levels in ex-NFL players and their impaired performance in cognitive assessments, particularly in learning and memory.

The correlation is most pronounced in brain regions associated with memory and attention, drawing a direct link between the physical demands of football and long-term cognitive decline.

NFL (Image via Associated Press)
NFL (Image via Associated Press)

These findings are pivotal, as they provide concrete evidence of the cognitive risks associated with prolonged exposure to collision sports, like football. It further raises serious questions about the long-term health of athletes involved in such sports.


Broader implications beyond the field

While the study primarily focuses on former NFL players, its implications extend to a wider population. Anyone experiencing repeated mild traumatic brain injuries (TBIs), including military personnel and children with repetitive head-banging behaviors, is potentially at risk.

The presence of TSPO, linked to the brain's repair mechanisms, suggests a natural response to injury. However, the prolonged elevation of this protein raises concerns about the efficacy and extent of the brain's healing process post-injury.

The researchers caution against immediate pharmacological intervention, advocating for further studies to understand the natural course and resolution of brain injuries better.


Ongoing research and future directions

NFL (Image via Associated Press)
NFL (Image via Associated Press)

Johns Hopkins Medicine's commitment to this area of study is ongoing. The team plans to continue tracking the former NFL players involved in the study, monitoring changes in TSPO levels over time.

The longitudinal approach is crucial in developing effective treatments and personalized care protocols for individuals suffering from repeated brain injuries. The goal is not only to understand the healing process but also to identify potential interventions that could expedite recovery and mitigate long-term cognitive effects.


This research adds a significant layer to the existing body of evidence about the risks associated with collision sports. It highlights the need for increased awareness and preventative measures in sports like football, where repeated head trauma is prevalent.

Edited by Ankush Das