Can These Brain Scans Make High School Football Safer?
Munir McClain sits down in front of a laptop and fits a futuristic-looking skull cap over his head of tightly cropped hair.
The soon-to-be-senior football player at JSerra Catholic High School is crunched for time, but Erin Laswell assures him that it won't take more than 20 minutes. The scan she's about to do will establish baseline brain health.
"Your hair cut's going to help us with the time," she tells him, "because yours is so short, we're able to get a better connection right away."
Laswell leads McClain, 17, through a series of simple exercises designed to measure brain activity. He puts on headphones and clicks a mouse when he hears an odd sound; then has to touch numbered dots on the laptop screen in ascending order.
It's all over in about five minutes. The results, proponents hope, will help McClain, his coaches, parents and doctors better assess how bad a potential future head injury is, and when it's ok to send him back out on the field.
SO HOW DOES IT WORK?
If an athlete takes a hit to the head during a practice or game, the athletic staff at JSerra can rescan him or her and send the "before and after" results with the athlete to the doctor's office.
The decision to move forward with testing for about 100 football players at the San Juan Capistrano high school came after a pilot program earlier this year. Kayla Gradillas, head athletic trainer for JSerra, said she was sold on the technology after first trying it out on eight student athletes.
The hope is that the scans take the guesswork out of deciding when an injury is serious, and when the brain is healed after suffering a concussion.
She said it's an acknowledgment that old stands like whether someone got their "bell rung" weren't working. The scans will let them know: "That's a concussion and we need to treat it properly."
Gradillas said she's seen a decline in enrollment for contact sports and she hopes the brain scans will help ease parents' fears about injuries.
She said the decision to scan athletes brains shows "that we're trying to keep your child safe and get as much information before we return them back (to the field) and make sure it's safe for them and they are truly healed."
The school plans to test other student athletes who play contact sports like soccer, rugby and lacrosse, and eventually all of its student athletes. Gradillas noted recent research suggesting that female, high school soccer players actually get more concussions than football players.
Gradillas said the scans can also show when concussion symptoms are actually more likely stemming from a neck injury.
WHAT ABOUT LONG-TERM DAMAGE?
Concussions are one thing. Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, or CTE, is another. The degenerative brain disease that is now known to affect youth football players as well as pros, can only be detected after death.
CTE has been found post-mortem in the brains of scores of former NFL players, including stars such as Bubba Smith and Junior Seau, as well as other athletes and military veterans.
Symptoms include changes in mood and behavior, such as "impulse control problems, aggression, depression, and paranoia," according to the Concussion Legacy Foundation. And researchers say the problem is not just concussions. In fact, taking repeated hits to the head over time may be the biggest factor.
That's why some doctors, including Dr. Bennet Omalu, who discovered CTE, say children should not play contact sports. Period.
Testing youth athletes for concussions "does not make any difference in terms of the risk of brain damage," Omalu said in a phone interview. "Parents need to know that."
Dr. Lee Goldstein, another expert on traumatic brain injuries, agreed.
"The research we're seeing is that cumulative hits to the head is the real problem," Goldstein said. "What we really need to be focusing on is preventing head injuries. We can do that without technology."
THE RISK VS. THE REWARD
JSerra athletic director, Chris Ledyard, calls the research on head trauma in contact sports over the last decade "pretty profound."
He noted that better knowledge of head injury risks has led to precautions like state rules limiting the number of full-contact practice days permitted in high school football.
But he said it should be left to players and their parents to decide whether the risks outweigh the benefits of playing sports.
He speaks from experience. Ledyard lives with a neck injury stemming from his college wrestling days.
"When my kids say to me, 'Dad, would you do it again?' I say, 'Absolutely, you gotta be laying in a bed dying of something.' It was a beautiful experience. It strengthened me as a human being."
When 17-year-old McClain's brain scan is finished, he hurries out the door to a physical therapy appointment. A knee injury kept him off the field for much of last season. He says he worries about his brain when he's on the field, but not nearly enough to make him stop playing.
"I just try to stay safe out there and I hope everyone else is safe also," he said.
His dream? Next year, the standout wide receiver plans to play ball at USC. And then, hopefully, on to the NFL.
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