You have your favorite team and you cheer for the long throws and big plays. But those bone jarring tackles and helmet-to-helmet hits are causing concussions, and it's a serious issue for athletes. The CDC estimates as many as 3.8-million concussions happen each year in the United States.
The year-long study compared the brains of 12 NFL players to men who have never had a concussion. The goal was to analyze if repeated hits to the head actually cause brain injuries.
The athletes and control group were all given a chemical that lights up portions of the brain during a PET scan. The more colorful the image, the more inflammation and damage there is.
"We're concerned that there might be a link to memory deficits," said Johns Hopkins Assistant Psychiatry Professor, Dr. Jennifer Coughlin.
It's the first time the complex imaging has been used to show traumatic brain injuries in the living organ.
"Using this technology we're now able to see that, yes, there is a brain injury associated with NFL play," Coughlin said.
The team at Johns Hopkins hopes they can look into their findings further, especially to determine if the brain is able to repair itself, Or if the damage flags the person for future physical and mental issues.
"The technology is showing us that it might be very useful in repeatedly examining the brains of players to see whether this brain injury persists, or whether there are ways we can prevent it, or whether there are ways we can intervene to prevent long term consequences of the brain injury," said Coughlin.
There's growing concern among professional football players that repetitive concussions make them high risk for developing the neurodegenerative disease CTE. Right now, a CTE diagnosis is only possible after death.
With more research, these sensitive brain scans could let us know the risks to playing football.
"We've heard from many NFL players that they're certainly very concerned that their memory deficits as they age are associated with their history of play,” Coughlin said. “And that's really what has fuelled our enthusiasm to use this technology to really get them some answers."