Researchers Explore Verbal Ability Tests as Indicator of Future Brain Injury Complications

by | Jun 29, 2017

Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) is a neurological disorder that has been associated with a number of professional athletes who experience brain injuries as a result of sports-related impacts to the head. Many people became familiar with the condition after it was linked to professional football players who were diagnosed with CTE after their deaths – the only way it can be diagnosed. The NFL officially acknowledged links between head injuries and CTE in March of last year.

Although CTE can greatly affect a person’s memory, mood, and cognitive abilities, medical professionals still struggle with reliable ways to detect it, especially in its early stages. A new study is now raising hope that CTE signs can be identified in athletes before symptoms appear by tracking changes in the way they speak.

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Conducted by researchers from Arizona State University, the study tracked 10 NFL players who gave interviews or spoke at news conferences over an 8-year period. These players included several quarterbacks, a nose tackle, cornerback, and a wide receiver. They compared changes in the players’ conversational language with those exhibited by nearly 20 coaches or league executives who never played professional football and who also spoke publicly during the same time frame.

Here are some details about the study and researchers’ findings:

  • Players, coaches, and executives studied by researchers spoke at least 30,000 words in interviews and news conferences between 2007 and 2015. All interviews were unscripted, which was important to gauging how the brain identifies and organizes words to express ideas before a person physically speaks.
  • Researchers focused on two measures of verbal ability: (1) the number of nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs used compared to the total number of words a person spoke, and (2) the number of distinct words used compared to the total number of words spoken.
  • As opposed to the case of neurologically healthy people whose use of words and vocabulary remain the same or increase until they reach their mid-70s, 7 out of the 10 athletes studied displayed a decline in at least one area of verbal ability. Four athletes showed declines in both areas. After comparing the findings to non-players, researchers suggest that athletes were more likely to show signs of declines in verbal ability.
  • Due to the study’s small size, no definitive conclusions were reached. However, researchers noted that its findings highlighted the need for larger studies into how changes in the way athletes speak and write could indicate future brain damage and neurological disorders.
  • Researchers are hopeful that a larger study could aid medical professionals in detecting and monitoring various neurological disorders associated with brain injuries, including Alzheimer’s, before symptoms begin to appear.

The new study, as well as plans for additional studies that involve more athletes from other sports, is one of many efforts being made to understand the impact of concussions and repetitive head injuries on long-term health. Experts and advocates are hopeful that with more research, scientists can better identify patients who may be at increased risk of developing neurological disorders, and better treat those patients early on to avoid to delay the progression of brain damage.

While experts are working diligently to bring science up to par when it comes to accurately assessing, detecting, and preventing brain injuries and neurological disorders, the truth is that these issues largely remain a mystery. Because we do know there are links between brain injuries and future complications, however, there are still steps many athletes and others involved in sports can take to reduce risks at any level. This is why many organizations and communities have passed rules to better regulate safety in sports, concussion protocol, and educational resources. For example, CSCS Partner Joseph Cammarata drafted the DC Youth Athletic Concussion Protection Act, which became law in 2011, to help athletes under the age of 18 avoid concussions and serious complications associated with multiple head injuries.

In addition to pushing for policy changes that directly relate to brain injuries, Chaikin, Sherman, Cammarata & Siegel, P.C. is passionate about fighting on behalf of victims who suffer concussions and traumatic brain injuries that could and should have been prevented. These includes injuries sustained in car accidents, motorcycle accidents, truck accidents, and sports. As “Preferred Attorneys” for the DC Metro area by the Brain Injury Association of America, we are available to help victims throughout Maryland, Virginia, and Washington, DC learn more about their legal rights and how we may be able to help them seek a recovery of their damages.

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