More good news: Though the Bronchos were not told their test results, several, like Ripke and Stumph, figured out that they were in the high-hits group by virtue of getting called in for more fMRIs than their teammates. The Purdue researchers say one Jefferson High player who was in the impaired group last season seems to have figured that out and has played with better, heads-up technique this season, reducing the number of hits he's taken on the forehead.
And the best news: After nine months off from football, the functionally impaired players who were back for the 2010 season (one had graduated) returned to their baseline ImPACT scores. So perhaps the youthful brain is able to completely heal itself, or at least make up for any deficit.
Critical chronological windows are known to exist for recovery from particular brain injuries. For example, in the rare case when a very young child has a stroke and loses the ability to speak, a different part of the brain is able to take over speech, and the child invariably recovers full language ability. But if the stroke occurs after the age of nine, the brain is not as flexible, and the recovery may be longer and less complete. If it occurs after puberty, some symptoms will be permanent.
The Purdue study is continuing this fall at Jefferson High, with 32 Bronchos players now taking part, and it shortly will expand by adding the reigning Indiana Class 3A state champion West Lafayette High. Researchers hope to track players through high school and even college—Ripke hopes to play at the next level—to see at what point deficits become irreversible. That is, if they are not already looking at it. "Are these kids really coming all the way back to baseline?" Leverenz asks. "Or are they just a little bit off one year, and just a little bit off the next year, and pretty soon it's significant?"
Let's hope for good news.