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Battlefield Breakthroughs: The Brain-Injury Link From Fallujah To 'Friday Night Lights'

BJ Austin

The Pentagon estimates that one in every five veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan suffered at least one mild concussion.  Since 2007, the military has pumped about $700 million into research on traumatic brain injury. That research can be traced from Fallujah to Friday Night Lights.  

The glory on a Texas high school football field can evaporate in an instant: like it did in the first episode of TV’s series Friday Night Lights. And it did in real life for Jarrod Snell of Keller.  

“Back on September 16, 2010 I was a sophomore at Keller High School, Jarrod says, willing to share his story. “I was playing football. I was the quarterback. And I received four concussions in one football game. I got like two or three just in one play.”

After the first hit, Jarrod was slow to get up. But then he jumped right back into the huddle. A few plays later, a student trainer knew something was wrong.  

“When they snapped the ball to me I just kinda let it go by,” he says. “Another time I think I gave it to a person on the other team, my family said. I don’t remember any of it.”

Jarrod missed the rest of his sophomore year and had to make up course-work online later. But it was hard.  He says he had trouble keeping his eyes on the page, understanding and concentrating. His mom, looking for different treatment options, found theCenter for BrainHealth at U-T Dallas. Jarrod wound up in a research program under Dr. Lori Cook, chief of the pediatric brain injury program.

“A concussion is a mild brain injury,” Cook explains. “And people don’t take that very seriously. We hear, well he got his bell rung and such. The force that is put upon the brain causes it to move around the skull, and stretch and tear those white matter fibers, those connections between the different regions of the brain that are so crucial.”

Cook says those connections are critical for memory, decision-making, attention span and reaction time.   

Jarrod, now 18 and headed to community college this month, became part of what he calls the BrainHealth Center’s ‘smart training program’ – a way of thinking that’s more abstract and analytical than routine memory exercises.

“That program made an obvious difference,” Jarrod says. “I definitely wouldn’t have graduated high school if I hadn’t had that.”  

Part of the Center’s research is funded by the Department of Defense. Dr. Sandra Chapman, the Center’s director, says it’s aimed at better recovery and repair with the kind of high performance brain training Jarrod got.

“A lot of the training for the brain that’s done is actually lower-level focused attention, memorize these lists,” Chapman says.  “And what we’ve shown is that doesn’t really repair the brain as much as when you push it to do higher order thinking.  And that’s when we get more rapid change and repair of the brain.”

Chapman sketches out an example of higher order thinking. In history class, for example, you wouldn’t concentrate on memorizing dates and facts, but think about the meaning of an event. How did it affect us? How’s it still affecting us – a more complex synthesis or processing of information.  

“And that works our frontal lobes undergoing very dramatic changes in the teenage years and concussion can interrupt those.”

Whether the teenager is wearing cleats or combat boots.

The average age of troops returning with TBI is 19. The frontal lobe doesn’t fully develop until age 25.

Chapman says BrainHealth Center experts are in Colorado this month instructing the military in high performance brain training – a kind of strategic thinking that’s similar to what coaches are doing on pre-season football fields across Texas.

You know, concussions being in the news as much as they are, it really is a focus of all of ours,” says Coach Terry Smith at Ranchview High School in Irving.   

At Ranchview and elsewhere, coaches use a sideline pocket guide to identify a possible concussion. What day is it? Repeat these words. Say these numbers in reverse order. Some colleges and pro-teams use iPads.  Such sideline screenings are an outgrowth of the Military Acute Concussion Evaluation or MACE program developed in 2006.  

Smith says the attitude toward football concussions has certainly changed. Players no longer are told to just to shake it off.  He says training has changed too, with the mantra never –ever- lead with your head. But, Smith says game is the same.

“You still want maximum effort. You still want physical contact. You still want, I hate to use the word violence, but you want the kids to go hard on everything they do and that’s never going to change,” Smith says. “Just as long as there’s physical nature of the football game, I think there’s always going to be the chance of concussions.”

In that way, the battlefield and the football field are not that far apart.


“It’s now clear that the brain is probably the most regenerative organ that we have in our body.”

Dr. Sandra Chapman, founder and director of the Center for BrainHealth at U-T Dallas.

  • The brain makes new cells every day.
  • The brain can form complex synapses, or connections, no matter how old we are.
  • The connections between neurons can be strengthened.
  • There is no limit to brain repair. New research shows the brain can be repaired months and years after injury if the correct intervention or treatment is applied.
  • Active cognitive stimulation can help build new connections in the brain even after traumatic injury, stroke and also in progressive diseases such as Alzheimer’s.
  • Advances in brain imaging show more activation in regions of the brain during learning as new connections are developing, and less activation once the skill has been acquired.

Former KERA reporter BJ Austin spent more than 25 years in broadcast journalism, anchoring and reporting in Atlanta, New York, New Orleans and Dallas. Along the way, she covered Atlanta City Hall, the Georgia Legislature and the corruption trials of Louisiana Gov. Edwin Edwards.