Strong relationship between head injuries and mental disorders - Sovereign Health Group
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head injuries and mental disorders

After his accident, Phineas Gage was a changed man.

Gage was a railroad worker in Vermont during the 19th century. One day, Gage was using a tamping iron to pack blasting powder into a hole for detonation. Unfortunately for Gage, the powder exploded, driving the 13-pound rod into his cheek, through his brain and out through his skull.

Although he lost the use of his left eye, Gage survived his accident and allegedly was lucid enough to have said “Here is business enough for you” to one of the doctors who treated him that day. But it wasn’t the end. Something about Gage had changed. Before the accident, Gage was a good foreman, regarded well by his coworkers. Afterwards, Gage had become profane, unreliable, impatient and unable to stick to any plans he made. He was “no longer Gage,” according to his friends.

The strange case of Phineas Gage is notable for being the first recorded record of a person experiencing altered mental health after a traumatic brain injury (TBI), a relationship that has been seen time and time again in other patients. A new study on professional football players found that relationship is a tight one indeed.

The price of the game

Researchers from the Florida Center for Headache and Sports Neurology and Florida State University’s College of Medicine gave 40 retired National Football League players thinking and memory tests along with brain MRIs. Most of the players, who were aged 27 to 56, had only been out of the league for less than five years. An average of 8.1 concussions were reported by the players.

On the tests, around 50 percent of the former players had significant difficulties on problems that measured executive functions. Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child defines those as skills that help people plan, follow instructions and multitask. Similar results were found on tests measuring learning or memory, with 45 percent experiencing difficulty.

The MRI scans measured the damage done to the brain’s “white matter,” fibrous material that makes up half of the brain and may have connections to thought and psychological disorders. Seventeen of the players’ brain scans showed evidence of traumatic brain injury, while 12 other scans showed damage to nerve axons, part of the brain’s messaging center.

Overall, the results showed signs of traumatic brain injury were more likely to be seen in players with more years in the NFL. “We found that longer careers placed the athletes at a higher risk of TBI,” said the study’s lead author, Francis X. Conidi, M.D.

Head injuries and mental health

A relationship between traumatic brain injury and psychiatric disorders has been known for some time, and other studies have found strong links between head injuries and mental illness. Researchers from the Psychiatric Centre Copenhagen conducted a massive study in 2013 of 1.4 million people born between 1977 and 2000 in Denmark. Of that number, nearly 114,000 had been admitted to a hospital with a head injury. Four percent were later diagnosed with a mental disorder. The researchers found, compared to others, people with head injuries were:

  • 65 percent more likely to be diagnosed with schizophrenia
  • 59 percent more likely to develop depression
  • 28 percent more likely to be diagnosed with bipolar disorder

You don’t need to have experienced a head injury to have a mental disorder – like other chronic diseases, mental health doesn’t discriminate. Fortunately, these diseases respond well to treatment. Sovereign Health of California is a leading provider of mental health care. Our team of compassionate experts work with our patients as individuals, helping them get the best chance at a lasting recovery. For more information, contact our 24/7 helpline.

About the author

Brian Moore is a staff writer and graphic designer for the Sovereign Health Group. A 20-year veteran of the newspaper industry, he writes articles and creates graphics across Sovereign’s portfolio of marketing and content products. Brian enjoys music, bicycling and playing the tuba, which’s he’s done with varying degrees of success for over 25 years. For more information and other inquiries about this media, contact the author and designer at

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