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Medicine Science

What Happens To a Football Player's Neurons? 176

Posted by timothy
from the hut-hut-huuuuuut dept.
An anonymous reader writes "It seems like every week there's a new story about the consequences of all those concussions experienced by football players and other athletes — just a few days ago, the NY Times reported that some athletes diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's Disease may actually have a neural disease brought on by head trauma. But missing in these stories is an explanation of what head trauma actually does to the brain cells. Now Carl Zimmer has filled in the gap with a column that takes a look at how neurons respond to stress, and explains how stretching a neuron's axon turns its internal structure into 'mush.'"
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What Happens To a Football Player's Neurons?

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday August 19, 2010 @05:49PM (#33308460)

    .........I didn't know athletes/footballers had neurons.

    • by mkiwi (585287)

      The only thing we really know is that the big dumb jocks you meet in high school only get bigger and dumber.

  • True geniuses? (Score:2, Insightful)

    by mangu (126918)

    Yet there are people who argue that football is a game based on sophisticated strategies, that anyone able to play it proficiently must have an intelligence on the higher outliers of genius.

    Now it seems that "mushy" neurons are good enough...

    • Which people say that again? Fact is, nearly every decision is made by people who aren't even on the field. The players might as well be robots.
      • THAT would be cool! And if the robot players could have saws and hammers on their arms all the better!
      • Re:True geniuses? (Score:5, Interesting)

        by P0ltergeist333 (1473899) on Thursday August 19, 2010 @06:05PM (#33308600)

        I completely disagree. No offensive scheme or technique on it's own is a match for a good linebacker or DB who can read offenses. And no defensive scheme or technique on it's own is a match for a good quarterback and skilled players who can read defenses and adjust on the fly. Linemen need to be able to make split second decisions and reads and adjust accordingly. I cannot reconcile your statement with reality at all.

        • Most athletes need to make split second decisions, but as an athlete I can tell you that mostly comes from talent + practice. Do the smarter athletes excel when compared to equal talent? In my experience yes. But would I compare Peyton Manning with Albert Einstein? Would you?
          • But would I compare Peyton Manning with Albert Einstein? Would you?

            Yes, yes I would. It's easy, looks like this:

            (with regards to intelligence) : Peyton Manning < Albert Einstein

            It's not an insult either, it's just the way it is.

          • Re:True geniuses? (Score:4, Insightful)

            by antifoidulus (807088) on Thursday August 19, 2010 @08:00PM (#33309466) Homepage Journal
            Define "smart", experience has shown us that measuring intelligence as a single vector is folly. It does take a certain kind of intelligence to be able to quickly read and react to the changing conditions on the field. However that same intelligence may not necessarily be very applicable to designing a particle collider and vice-versa. To put it another way, you really cannot say that "Einstein was smarter than Mozart" because that statement really depends on how you define "smart". I'm sure if Einstein decided to become a composer he probably could have wrote something passable since he was quite intelligent, but I doubt it would have reached the level of Mozart. And I'm sure if Mozart was a scientist in the early 20th century he probably could have made a living at it but I doubt he would have excelled to the level of Einstein.
      • Re: (Score:1, Informative)

        by Anonymous Coward

        Which people say that again?

        It was a common thing back in the day to claim that black players were only suited to be linebackers, because the other positions in football required "too much intelligence." Now that black players have entered and excelled in those positions, sports people don't talk about that anymore.

        It's funny, back in the nineteen thirties, Jewish players dominated basketball, and sports commentators made up all kinds of racial Just-So stories to explain that, too. (Because just saying "they live in the ghetto, and th

    • by _merlin (160982)

      The players don't have to be smart - they just have to memorise set plays. That doesn't require a great deal of intelligence.

      • by blair1q (305137)

        Have you seen a printout of a modern football playbook? It's usually a binder that looks big under an offensive lineman's arm.

      • The playbook only tells you the general plan. In reality, players have to react to hundreds or thousands of variables. Dumb people don't make it in real football... which is not to say that real football players don't do some really dumb stuff, but then you should see what goes on after hours at Strings [www-conference.slu.se].

    • Playbooks aren't designed during the game, and the execution plan is decided by the offensive co-ordinator on the sidelines.

      Arguably the players who suffer the most amount of concussions are the linemen, and I hate to generalize, but there is a reason these guys don't pick the plays.
    • by gmuslera (3436)
      The game could require strategy, but the strategist could be out of the field. In fact, the smart ones there and others that have that kind of risk (i.e. boxing) probably play in a way or another from ouside (managers, coachers, trainers, lawyers, etc).
  • feh (Score:3, Funny)

    by AdmiralXyz (1378985) on Thursday August 19, 2010 @06:09PM (#33308616)
    This is all just a conspiracy by the liberal media to destroy an American pasttime. There's still no REAL proof that football causes any blane dibblage.
  • What they need neurons for?
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by blair1q (305137)

      Pretty much everything, but to be able to rub the lotion on Giselle's back on the beach in Ipanema might be the simplest way to express it.

  • Certainly there also has to be some damage done by banging heads on keyboards for years...
  • by hernol (1402569) on Thursday August 19, 2010 @06:14PM (#33308656) Homepage
    Just to point, we are talking about American Football, not Football. It's not the same.
    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      Actually, football (soccer here in the US) [washington.edu] has risk factors of its own including heading the ball causes neuronal damage.
      • Have you ever headed a soccer ball? They're extremely light. And while there's contact all the time, soccer players are too fast/agile to do much damage.

        I'm not so familiar with american football (looks like they wear a lot of padding), but there's no comparing soccer injuries to what see regularly in australia: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kFy_kBEn5UY [youtube.com] (fast forward to 50 seconds in).

        • by winwar (114053)

          "Have you ever headed a soccer ball?"

          Yes.

          "They're extremely light."

          So is a baseball. But I don't think you would want to take one to the head. And soccer balls can reach a significant fraction of the speed of a pitch. Head them wrong and they can cause real damage and broken bones (been there, done that). Done right they still cause damage.

          "And while there's contact all the time, soccer players are too fast/agile to do much damage."

          Then why is one of my friends suffering permanent brain damage from a co

          • soccer is definitely a full contact sport. With the only protection gear used on your shins! This is why fouls are much more important in the game. In American football it hurts just as much. Even though there is heavy padding you still are hitting and getting hit by beasts of men. Also the better the protection technology gets the harder these players seem to hit each other. Similar effect in car airbags. Having the protection makes you care less about consequences so you go all out. This also hurts [blogspot.com]
        • by hedwards (940851)
          I used to play and yes we do wear padding, but it's a pretty significant hit. First off the helmets we wear are hard, meaning they don't do a particularly good job of absorbing the impact. Secondly, football players are typically large and travelling quite fast. It's a significant hit that results in 2 180+ lbs., players each running in excess of 16 mph each. That's a pretty significant hit. And that's actually achievable even in high school, the pros can weigh more and run even a bit faster.

          A hit like t
        • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

          by xSander (1227106)
          There are head injuries in soccer as well, not because of heading the ball (though accidentally being in the way of a shot can cause concussions) but because of clashing heads.
        • by jez9999 (618189) on Friday August 20, 2010 @03:26AM (#33311432) Homepage Journal

          And while there's contact all the time, soccer players are too fast/agile to do much damage.

          Not really, it's just that football players are miraculous creatures, their bodies heal amazingly fast. Have you seen the number of times Ronaldo has had a fracture and been rolling around the ground in pain, and been up and running a minute later? Amazing.

    • by BitterOak (537666)

      Just to point, we are talking about American Football, not Football. It's not the same.

      American Football is real football, just as is Canadian Football. The rules are slightly different, but there's no reason to claim one is any more real than the other.

    • by PotatoFarmer (1250696) on Thursday August 19, 2010 @06:33PM (#33308816)

      Just to point, we are talking about American Football, not Football. It's not the same.

      True. A medical story regarding non-American Football would likely cover one of these topics instead:

      1. How a nudge to the shoulder can translate into a compound leg fracture.
      2. How grabbing your shin while writhing on the ground can partially alleviate the pain of a compound leg fracture.
      3. Whatever is in those magical spray cans the trainers carry around, and how they can instantly heal a compound leg fracture immediately after a penalty has been awarded.

      • by Jesus_666 (702802)
        American football players are brutes who inflict violence on each other. Football players are thespians who treat us to fine displays of acting each week. I'd say that I'll stick with the fine arts but I don't give a crap about football either.
    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      Just to point, we are talking about American Football, not Football. It's not the same.

      I think you mean to say that we are talking about American Football and not Association Football, known to some by its abbreviated name soccer and to others simply as football. American Football is a ball game played on foot, and thus is very much a type of football. In fact Rugby is also football - hence the Rugby Football Union.

      See wikipedia's article on the word Football [wikipedia.org]

    • by Trogre (513942)

      That's why that version of Football, as in where you kick around a white spherical ball with black pentagons, should only ever be referred to by its proper name: Soccer.

      • Re: (Score:1, Insightful)

        by Anonymous Coward

        That's why that version of Football, as in where you kick around a white spherical ball with black pentagons, should only ever be referred to by its proper name: Soccer.

        I agree. The rightful title of 'Football' should go to the sport where you carry an elliptical object with your hand and .. umm...

        Nevermind.

    • by labnet (457441)

      Just to point, we are talking about American Football, not Football. It's not the same.

      You mean that sport where there wear so much padding, you could drop them off a 10 storey building with no ill effect.
      The rest of the world plays rugby!

  • by Anarki2004 (1652007) on Thursday August 19, 2010 @06:16PM (#33308668) Homepage Journal
    The number of replies to this story seems to indicate that perhaps a vast majority of slashdotters don't particularly like football players. I was actually hoping for some technical insight and whatnot, but it would seem everybody is still maintaining the same attitude they had in high school.
    • I had a chemistry teacher as an undergrad who played football (American kind) in college. He said his adviser gave him a hard time because "chemistry majors shouldn't play football".

      My orthodontist played football in HS and college. He always advised kids not to play it: knee damage, concussions, damage to teeth and jaw - mouth guards only give you so much protection.

      • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

        by Knuckles (8964)

        Everybody knows that the only healthy thing you can do is to sit at a desk with a computer for 50 years!!

    • by Ethanol-fueled (1125189) * on Thursday August 19, 2010 @06:33PM (#33308810) Homepage Journal
      Funny thing is, at least in places (not Texas) that don't take high school football too seriously, football is an excellent opportunity for a nerd to get into the "in" crowd.

      In fact, it's how I became "cool." It didn't matter how well you played or how annoying or ugly you were, as long as you survived hell week and stuck with the team, you were in with the cool people(and, by extension, the juniors and seniors and the parties that they threw and all the pussy surrounding that whole scene). You were allowed to scream, cuss, punch lockers, high-five, whatever you had to do to shrug off the pain...as long as you took your hits and didn't cry like a bitch on the field.

      Plus, a working knowledge of sports makes it much easier to bond with others and make new friends. And, of course, the health benefits. Now if only those damn San Diego Chargers would quit taking bribes and fucking up in the playoffs so I can see them win at least one super bowl before I die.
      • Ah a Chargers fan. Being a 49ers fan myself, I always like to meet Chargers fans. And watch them squirm in pain and agony as they remember the excitement of the final score: 49-26. When the 49ers were so far ahead the put defensive players on the offense just for fun. Oh, you do remember that don't you?

        Actually that's not true, I don't like football at all, except when I meet people from San Diego. Then somehow it becomes fun.
      • by blind biker (1066130) on Thursday August 19, 2010 @11:40PM (#33310556) Journal

        Funny thing is, at least in places (not Texas) that don't take high school football too seriously, football is an excellent opportunity for a nerd to get into the "in" crowd.

        In fact, it's how I became "cool." It didn't matter how well you played or how annoying or ugly you were, as long as you survived hell week and stuck with the team, you were in with the cool people(and, by extension, the juniors and seniors and the parties that they threw and all the pussy surrounding that whole scene).

        No, actually, the funny thing is how in the USA (maybe also Canada?) you so ridiculously obsess about being popular, being with the "in" people. Is being yourself so scary, over there?

        While I believe that there is some peer pressure to conform, everywhere, in the USA it seems it has become grotesque.

        • by LanMan04 (790429)

          No, actually, the funny thing is how in the USA (maybe also Canada?) you so ridiculously obsess about being popular, being with the "in" people. Is being yourself so scary, over there?

          When you're 13? Well, yes.

        • by drinkypoo (153816)

          While I believe that there is some peer pressure to conform, everywhere, in the USA it seems it has become grotesque.

          I don't disagree that it is harmful, but to point out the USA as grotesque is a pathetic joke given other nations in the world. In some you will be punished if you do not wear the "correct" clothing. In some you will be killed if you have sex with the wrong people.

          The USA might encourage sameness, but we still permit an unparalleled degree of personal freedom. Can't say how long that will last, of course.

        • It's not so much about being popular, it's about being completely ousted.

          Once you are blackballed in elementary school it can take more than a decade to undo the damage.

          Or you can be like many nerds (myself included) who after years of inflicted upon social isolation you just don't give a damn anymore and fit in just about anywhere.

          • It's not so much about being popular, it's about being completely ousted.

            Once you are blackballed in elementary school it can take more than a decade to undo the damage.

            Or you can be like many nerds (myself included) who after years of inflicted upon social isolation you just don't give a damn anymore and fit in just about anywhere.

            Pretty bleak. I am happy my son won't grow up in such an environment.

          • by Reziac (43301) *

            "Or you can be like many nerds (myself included) who after years of inflicted upon social isolation you just don't give a damn anymore and fit in just about anywhere."

            Good point, which I note other replies failed to understand: It only hurts to be uncool if you care about being cool. As soon as you stop caring about being cool, you're cool anywhere, with anyone, in any situation, because it's no longer about how OTHERS see you.

            "He was a leader because he did not look back to see who was following him."

    • Oh crap...it would appear that my statement is losing validity. Stop replying people! I shouldn't even be posting this message...
    • I think it is not that slashdotters dislike football players, otherwise they would be all here ranting, it is just that they probably do not find it all that interesting. It is all just a matter of taste and personal interests which can even change over time. My father is an academic dude, who topped his state in highschool, has two four year degrees, a research masters and is currently working on his PhD. When he was younger he could never stand watching any sport, however when he was forty or so, he reali

    • by hedwards (940851)
      You might want to check my other post out. A relatively typical open field tackle involves 2 180+ players each travelling at 16+ mph. And is a really nasty hit, the protective gear doesn't really do a whole lot to elleviate that kind of energy. Which by the way is typical for high school ball, college and pro ball are probably both worse as the players are both bigger and faster.

      I played a bit of DB and tight end and there's a lot more thought to it than the /. nerds really want to acknowledge. DBs in pa
    • by fermion (181285)
      High school football has some redeeming qualities, and it is only in the backwater rural and suburban parts of Texas where they actively weed out players.

      It is exposing younger players to the injuries of this and other sports that is going to be a problem for an already strained healthcare system and limit the opportunities for gainful employment due to physical and mental disabilities. I have seen parents as young as 10 in situations where they can be injured. Though young children are plastic, injuries

    • Oh lots of us love football, it's just we don't get American Football. We prefer the version where players use their feet to kick the ball.

      Many of us think American Football might be rugby but with more padding because Americans are scared of getting hurt. Or perhaps they are more sensible and like their teeth and unbroken bones or other such faint excuses.

    • by vegiVamp (518171)
      Personally, I don't mind football players. It's the actual game that I have no interest in whatsoever.

      The players themselves can be quite hot, actually :-)
    • by drinkypoo (153816)

      The number of replies to this story seems to indicate that perhaps a vast majority of slashdotters don't particularly like football players. I was actually hoping for some technical insight and whatnot, but it would seem everybody is still maintaining the same attitude they had in high school.

      I don't see any reason to believe that the football players have changed substantially since school, when they thought they were better than everyone else because they were athletes. Indeed, when a strategy works for someone, they generally continue to employ it. If the vast majority of football players (with some notable exceptions like Flutie... but he had personal tragedy to deal with) aren't assholes I am very, very surprised. Having had to deal with the jock mentality much more than I would ever have l

  • Handegg (Score:2, Funny)

    by Anonymous Coward

    An effeminate version of rugby.

  • Read about it in GQ (Score:2, Informative)

    by djlemma (1053860)
    The October 2009 issue of GQ had a major article about this. Click to read it here. [gq.com]

    I found the article actually pretty fascinating, but it is a bit of a narrative about this particular doctor's quest to bring his research into the public eye.

    Also, who knew GQ had such a fantastic catalog of their back-issues? I think I might have to read their stuff more often. I know it's very un-slashdot of me, but whatever.
  • After all, they don't worry about what happens to geeks' muscles.

  • hmm (Score:4, Interesting)

    by nomadic (141991) <nomadicworld@nOSpaM.gmail.com> on Thursday August 19, 2010 @06:38PM (#33308842) Homepage
    I remember seeing an article very recently (on Slashdot maybe) that pointed out that boxing got more dangerous when they started using padded gloves, because that let the boxers hit with all their strength. Take away the football helmets and pads and you might get more contusions and cuts, but less brain damage; it would be more like rugby with the players hitting each other much more softly.
    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by Anonymous Coward
      Yes, that's an accurate assessment about football vs. rugby that's brought up occasionally. Rugby players would kill themselves (literally) if they hit with equal force. But football players would be on the ground exhausted if they ran just half as much as their counterparts.

      Professional boxers greatly outmatch even most football players when it comes to sustaining insane amounts of head trauma. But somehow that discussion is culturally taboo or something.
      • by nomadic (141991)
        Yes, that's an accurate assessment about football vs. rugby that's brought up occasionally. Rugby players would kill themselves (literally) if they hit with equal force. But football players would be on the ground exhausted if they ran just half as much as their counterparts.

        True on both accounts.

        Professional boxers greatly outmatch even most football players when it comes to sustaining insane amounts of head trauma. But somehow that discussion is culturally taboo or something.

        I think it's pretty w
    • I read an article in a boxing magazine years ago that claimed that padded leather helmets are bad too: they somehow transform the shock wave from a hit in such a way that it actually damages the brain even more that with no helmet.

      The disturbing TFA makes me think I am rather happy not to kickbox anymore.

    • The objective in boxing is to cause sufficient brain trauma to your opponent that he loses consciousness or can no longer stand up. That's not a sport, that's barbarism, and has no business in a civilized society. the short term, it's highly dangerous, and in the long term it can turn you into what's left of Muhammad Ali.

      By contrast, wrestling is a real sport, in spite of the fact that professional boxing is for real and professional wrestling is as much fake showmanship as sport. (And yes, just because

      • by jack2000 (1178961)
        Meh, Sumo is more entertaining. Now there's a sport. It's all about balance and technique.
        You don't need to be extremely heavy either just look at some of the lighter ones like Kotooshu
        • by Reziac (43301) *

          I find Sumo interesting to watch for the same reason -- it's a subtle contest rather akin to baseball, that "game of inches". A quarter of a degree shift of balance translates into an advantage, and so on. I gather that just bulldozing your opponent out of the ring is considered poor technique.

          Mind you I also love American Football, but for itself. Every sport doesn't need to have the same virtues!

      • by MarkvW (1037596)

        Yeah. Watching reruns of Ali doing the 'rope-a-dope' against George Foreman is watching irreversible horrible trauma as it was inflicted.

        Saying boxing is not a sport just because you think it is barbaric is ridiculous, though. It is attractive to people because it is a blood sport. You're just misusing language in an attempt to make your point. I happen to agree that boxing has no place in a civilized society, but I'd rather see straightforward and honest arguments used to facilitate its demise.

        • Would you maybe entertain the thought that because we are in a civilized society we have regulated blood sports like boxing or MMA? In an uncivilized society we got our base desires for violence off by going around killing other peoples/villages/etc and going on wars and crusades? Wouldn't you say that millions of people sitting around watching 2 guys duke it out so you don't have to civilized in some sense? By civilizing fighting.
      • In America, at least, boxing has almost fallen off the cultural radar (I blame the rise of pay-per-view) and been replaced by mixed martial arts. The question is, is that any better?

    • Re:hmm (Score:5, Informative)

      by westlake (615356) on Thursday August 19, 2010 @10:23PM (#33310210)
      Take away the football helmets and pads and you might get more contusions and cuts, but less brain damage; it would be more like rugby with the players hitting each other much more softly

      College football had become so lethal around 1900 that the game came within an inch of being abandoned.

      The 1905 season...brought its rash of casualties. There were twenty-three football deaths. Only a handful took place in intercollegiate play, but one in particular set in motion the movement to reform the game. In a match between Union College and New York University, Harold Moore of Union died after being kicked in the head. Chancellor Henry M. MacCracken of NYU seized the opportunity to summon a reform conference.

      In the 1906 season and for two years following, the verdict on the "new football" was generally favorable. In spite of fluctuations in the injury count, the number of deaths dropped to fourteen, fifteen, and ten.

      Then, in the fall of 1909, the trend toward a safer game abruptly reversed itself. In a match between Harvard and West Point, the Army captain, Eugene Byrne, exhausted by continual plays to his side of the line, was fatally injured. Earl Wilson of the Naval Academy was paralyzed and later died as a result of a flying tackle. And the University of Virginia's halfback Archer Christian died after a game against Georgetown, probably from a cerebral hemorrhage suffered in a plunge through the line. . "Does the public need any more proof," wrote the Washington Post, "that football is a brutal, savage, murderous sport? Is it necessary to kill many more promising young men before the game is revised or stopped altogether?" President David Starr Jordan of Stanford referred to football as "Rugby's American pervert..."

      Early headgear, seldom worn consistently, shielded the ears and surface of the head but gave inadequate protection to the skull and brain. After World War I a sponge-rubber lining was added to the crown of the helmet, and by the late 1930s a sturdy leather helmet with an inner felt lining was being used. But it was not until 1943 that all players were required to wear headgear. The plastic helmet, which distributes shock more evenly, was introduced in the 1940s amid objections reminiscent of those that accompanied the original solely leather helmets. Some critics argued--and still do--that the hard plastic helmet, used as an offensive weapon, has as much potential for causing as for preventing serious injuries. Inventing Modern Football [americanheritage.com]

    • by hedwards (940851)
      You've got a point, football helmets do a terrible job of protecting the brain. I'm not sure what the numbers are, but there hard and I doubt that they absorb much of the impact. There meant to go helmet to shoulder pads or really helmet to anything other than helmet, as otherwise there isn't enough cushion to absorb the energy involved. Which to be honest is considerable during special teams.
    • by bazorg (911295)
      I heard something similar on QI (http://www.qi.com/tv/). They said that before gloves were introduced, most punches were to the body, not to the head. As soon as people started punching heads, fatalities increased.
    • This is the same rebuttal MMA advocates use when people comment on the brutality of their sport, and its very valid. Blackouts aren't caused by the force of the punch, but the force applied per second. Boxing gloves spread this force out (like the crumple zone in a car), making them more damaging in the long-term than single-punch knockouts that you see in MMA.

  • by zogger (617870)

    So, this explains the US Cxx class and all their wonderful and logical decisions.

  • The description of axons returning to normal appearance but being in a fragile state internally could explain second concussion syndrome.

    I know in baseball there is generally a growing recognition that a concussion calls for mandatory rest afterward. Research to determine how much rest is needed would be very useful, right now they have to guess and hope it's enough. A good diagnostic tool might be even better.

  • It's no wonder Brett Favre can't decide whether he wants to retire or not!
  • Neurons, I mean?

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