neuroscience | January 11, 2012

The Fragile Teenage Brain: Jonah Lehrer on Concussions in Sports

In a recent Grantland article, neuroscience speaker Jonah Lehrer looks at one of the most wrenching issues in modern sports: concussions. Only recently has the severity of sports-related brain injuries been brought to public attention, illuminated by, among other things, advances in neuroscience. While concussions at the pro level grab the headlines, the real concern, Lehrer writes, is at the high school and collegiate levels, where kids are "getting paid nothing and yet they are paying the highest cost." The Imagineauthor explains that teenagers are more susceptible to brain injuries than their older counterparts:

The consequences appear to be particularly severe for the adolescent brain. According to a study published last year in Neurosurgery, high school football players who suffered two or more concussions reported mental problems at much higher rates, including headaches, dizziness, and sleeping issues. The scientists describe these symptoms as "neural precursors," warning signs that something in the head has gone seriously wrong...What's most disturbing, perhaps, is that these cognitive deficits have a real-world impact: When compared with similar students without a history of concussions, athletes with two or more brain injuries demonstrate statistically significant lower grade-point averages.

Players today are also faster, stronger, and more serious than they were a decade ago—even at the high school level. "The players I'm coaching now have muscles that you almost never saw fifteen years ago," a high school football coach tells Lehrer. "They work out more, they drink their protein shakes, they know how to bulk up. This also means that these kids are dishing out some very big hits." The development of new helmet technologies aimed at reducing concussions continue to be the greatest hope in the reduction of brain injury risks in football. However, the original aim of helmets—to prevent skull fractures by providing a hard protective shell—are actually one of the causes of concussions, as "the head will bounce around the cushioned helmet, thus allowing the brain to move within its bony cage." In addition, as safety gear increases in effectiveness, people tend to increase the riskiness of their behavior, a phenomenon known as "the risk compensation effect." This, Lehrer explains, is why, for instance, the development of antilock brakes hasn't improved road safety.

Lehrer paints a grim picture for the future of adolescent football, but one rooted in the best interest of the players themselves. "Look, most of my players aren't going to play ball for a living," says the aforementioned coach. ""I know they don't want to hear that, but it's the truth. So there's really no reason they should risk messing up their brain.” This is one of the occasional articles Lehrer has contributed to Grantland, on the crossroads of science and sports. His book, How We Decide, included a particularly insightful chapter on Tom Brady, football quarterbacks, and on-field decision-making. His new book, Imagine: How Creativity Works, is due in March.

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the internet | January 10, 2012