Repeated head knocks – like those sustained in boxing and American football – can lead to personality changes, cognitive problems and depression years later. This neurodegenerative condition – known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) – is associated with the gradual build-up of a protein called tau in the brain.

A 2017 study of 111 brains obtained from deceased former National Football League (NFL) players found that 99 per cent had CTE. “What we’ve shown, I would say pretty definitively, is the relationship between years of play and risk of the disease,” says Jesse Mez, a neurologist at Boston University.

The NFL has developed an artificial intelligence tool that uses TV imagery and sensors embedded in helmets, mouth guards and shoulder pads to try to reduce injuries among American football players. Using machine learning and computer vision technology, it pinpoints impacts and injuries and offers insight into making players safer. “Having the computers understand how many times a player hits his helmet during the course of a game,” says NFL executive vice president Jeff Miller, “[helps] find ways to reduce the amount of helmet contact.” This has led to several rule changes in the sport, aimed at reducing risk.

Any steps taken to reduce injuries can only be a good thing. But, Mez adds, while “the NFL is doing some things better, football is inherently about hitting and I don’t think we will ever be able to entirely mitigate risk”.

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