Study Shows Brain Injuries Go Beyond Concussions

Mar 7, 2013

Evidence is mounting that brain injuries in football players go beyond concussions.

A new Cleveland Clinic study shows small hits over time may increase the risk of problems later in life. Jeff St.Clair of member station WKSU in Kent reports.


It’s Pro day at Kent State University, which means College players from the region are measured, weighed, and tested under the watchful eyes of a cluster of pro scouts.  Kent State Quarterback Spencer Keith is one of the players they’re watching closely…
“I’m hoping to get a spot on an NFL team.”
But Keith is NOT worried about the risk of concussions in the big league.
“It is a concern for a lot of people, but it’s part of the game and I hope it doesn’t happen.”
But Keith acknowledges, he’s come close.
“Taken plenty of hits… yeah plenty.”
And it’s the long-term impact of these more common hits that is the focus of a new study by Cleveland Clinic researchers.  Dr. Damir Janigro [DAH-mir jah-NEE-gro] is the lead author.  He says they followed a protein called S-100 that’s normally found only in the brain.  But when they took blood samples from 67 college football players in the study, he got a surprise.
“Because in those players that had no concussion but only several hits to the head that we call sub-concussive hits, S-100 was elevated at the end of the game and it went down to normal levels the day after the game, but it was nevertheless elevated.”
Janigro found that the more hits a player took, the higher the levels of S100 in the blood…
“But also there were changes in the MRI scans that are suggestive of an increased risk of degenerative brain diseases.”
In other words, temporary swelling in the brain, but not quite a concussion, could lead to problems down the road when college players, like everyone else, succumb to the effects of aging.
But for now, Janigro is more worried about the presence of the brain protein in the blood, because the body’s immune system doesn’t recognize S100 and therefore builds up antibodies against it. 
“We know from many other studies from many other studies from many other diseases that having anti-bodies against your brain is a risk-factor for brain disease.”
Janigro says repeated hits to the head create a backlog of anti-bodies waiting to attack the next time there’s damage to tiny blood vessels in the brain.
“So in other words when your door opens, it’s better if you don’t an army ready to assault.”
Janigro and his team are working on a blood test for the brain protein S100 that could be given on the sidelines to determine whether a player should sit out for a while, or give up the game altogether.
As a native of Italy, Damir Janigro is not a fan of American football, but as a researcher studying the blood-brain-barrier, he can’t think of a better research model.
“Very few human models allow you to see the injury when it happens.  In football you actually have a pre- and a post- .  I could not come up with any other study where we took blood from people before they have a car accident or stuff like that.”
The Cleveland Clinic study adds weight to a body of research showing that a player using his head as a battering ram, even if it doesn’t cause a concussion, can increase the risk of neurodegenerative diseases down the road.
The research is published in the current edition of the online journal PLOS One.