As high school football season nears, brain injury research raises new questions

Manor ISD refurbishes helmets to ensure safety every year. This season, students will be playing on a new, impact-absorbing turf field. (KXAN/Chris Davis)
Manor ISD refurbishes helmets to ensure safety every year. This season, students will be playing on a new, impact-absorbing turf field. (KXAN Photo/Chris Davis)

MANOR, Texas (KXAN) — Professional athletes who donated their brains to science suffered very high rates of a degenerative brain disorder called CTE, or chronic traumatic encephalopathy, which is typically caused by repeated blows to the head.

In research published Tuesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association, out of 111 brains researchers studied of National Football League players, 110 of them — 99 percent — had developed CTE.

School districts like Manor ISD are implementing new safety measures to help prevent brain injuries.

This year Manor players will be using a new kind of turf on their field. It’s probably not the kind you’re used to. It’s filled with coconut and cork pellets, and underneath is an elastic layer to help cut down on impact.

The new turf, which Manor ISD bills as the first of its kind in central Texas, is meant to help reduce the amount of force thrown into young players tackle after tackle.

KXAN has told you before about other safety innovations from helmets to mouth guards, all to make high school football safer; Manor’s new field and refurbished helmets are just the latest iteration.

“We’ve all seen the media reports, we’ve even seen the movies that have come out about this,” Manor ISD spokesman Scott Thomas said. “And parents are right to ask questions about their students’ safety.”

But how safe can the sport be?

The new research raises questions about repeated blows to the head and how consecutive concussions can add up. Those 111 NFL players’ brains weren’t the only ones studied.

Players from pre-high school age to the NFL and beyond — 202 people total — donated their gray matter, the study says, and 177 of them (86 percent) between high school age and the NFL had CTE.

A researcher at the University of Texas at Austin cautions that’s only out of the brains donated specifically for this research, likely by people who suspected some sort of chronic brain injury.

The actual percentage of athletes who go on to develop CTE later in life, the researcher said, is much lower. But there are still signs to watch out for if your kid plays contact sports.

Keep an eye on them on the field; watch for confusion or dizziness, Dr. Michael Reardon with Child Neurology Consultants of Austin said. Those could be signs of a concussion, and too many of those can add up.

“How are they doing in school?” Reardon advised parents to watch for to determine if there are longer-term effects of repeated blows to the head. “Are there any big changes, big declines in their school performance, any changes in their personality or their mental health?”

The first contact practice of the new football season is either on Aug. 11 or Aug. 18, depending on the school district.

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