Like many in neuroscience, I’ve been thinking about the consequences of traumatic brain injury in football. In thinking about this, I think I’ve figured out how American-style football will end. I’m putting the over/under at about 10 years.
The simple explanation of football is this: football is the optimal activity to put the maximum explosive energy a human can develop and deliver it to another human, pause, catch your breath, and do it again. Football is a game of inches, and so the ball is carried by huge, weight-lifting sprinters who hurl their 200+ pound frames at a line of huge, weight-lifting thugs who try to stop them cold. I am not anti-football: I played a little football in high school, I played full-pads, full contact intramural football while an undergraduate (an insurance company’s nightmare), and was a rugby player and coach as a graduate student. My own athletic skill was thuggery.
The problem with this is that repetitive shocks to the brain seem to create pathology in the brain of the protein tau. Athletes who engage in contact sports have a tendency to suffer from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), which is identified pathologically by finding dense tangles of tau. Dense tangles of tau have been found in boxers, football players, professional wrestlers, and soldiers. There is concern in hockey players and soccer players who head the ball. One researcher found tau tangles in 8 of 9 donated brains from former NFL players. This kind of accumulation of tau is associated with young-onset dementia, cognitive change, and mood disorders.