Author Archives: Tyler Mitchell Azar

Concussions, CTE, and the Changes to Football

It’s become a question of huge importance in recent years, especially among fans of professional sports: do hits to the head and concussions in football cause long term disabilities such as CTE? The NFL has begun implementing increased safety measures for players with concussion like symptoms in the wake of the suicides of former players such as Mike Webster, Junior Seau, and others. They have also begun settling lawsuits filed by the families of former players affected by head injuries. But what is CTE and what evidence has been found linking concussions to long term brain damage?


According to Boston University, Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy is a disease of the brain that causes tissue to die and leads to symptoms similar to that of an Alzheimer’s patient (forgetfulness, anger, lack of judgement, etc.). It can be caused by repeated blows to the head and symptoms can remain dormant for years after the end of a player’s career. In an article from CNN, it appears there are people working on drugs to treat CTE and, although we’re likely years away from any significant breakthrough, there is at least some hope for former players who are suffering these symptoms.

A study from the Medical College of Wisconsin has found that concussions can change the structure of the human brain, even after symptoms have long cleared up. 35 high school and college football players were studied, with half having had head injuries recently and half serving as a control group. Several different kinds of scans of their brains were done and at multiple times to decrease the possibility of chance results. What they found was that the water in white matter in the brain was moving less in the brains of athletes who had suffered concussions, even half a year after the injuries. However, so far, scientists have not been able to find a concrete link between this damage to the structure of the brain. The outlook from these findings is that it may push coaches and other authority figures to keep players out longer when sidelined with concussions, as the damage is still being done long after the symptoms disappear.


In short, concussions have come to the forefront of public consciousness in recent years for good reason. While it’s incredibly tragic that so many former players have been affected by concussions and long term brain diseases such as CTE, the outlook is good for the future. New rules have been put in place at all levels of football to keep players as safe as possible. And while a game based around hitting each other may never been 100% safe, they may one day be at least somewhat less dangerous.

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Do Cell Phones Negatively Affect Exam Scores?

In recent years, constantly being connected to others through smart phones has become a given. All demographics, but especially high school and college aged young adults, have become reliant on their phones to get them through the day. Walk into any class on any given day at Penn State, and you’ll likely see dozens of phones on peoples’ desks. But what impact are these pocket sized computers having on the academic performance of those who use them? One might assume having all the information in the world at your fingertips would make for a smarter, better performing generation. However, the science appears to suggest otherwise.

teenagers playing with mobile phones during class. Image shot 2005. Exact date unknown....AJEKXM teenagers playing with mobile phones during class. Image shot 2005. Exact date unknown.

According to a study from Longwood University, students who used their phones in class performed significantly poorer on exams. Dr. Chris Bjornsen led the study, asking students in all of his classes to fill out short surveys about how often and for what they had used their phones during lectures. The results he found were very strong in pointing to cell phone usage as detrimental to academic performance. He states that the students most affected used their phones for social reasons, such as texting and tweeting, or for gaming. According to Dr. Bjornsen, the average drop in score on an exam for each use of a phone was .6 points for social media and 3.1 for games. However, he did not find any strong evidence that phone usage for taking notes or managing a calendar was lowering test scores. While this evidence is certainly jarring, it must be taken with a grain of salt, as surveys are not always reliable. Students may be dishonest on self-evaluation style surveys, the results may be skewed due to lack of participation, and it is impossible to rule out the possibility of chance as the reason for the findings.


Dr. Chris Bjornsen

In closing, while it cannot be stated for certain, the results appear to be fairly clear that cell phone usage has severely negative effects on the academic performance of students. Perhaps in the future, we should keep the phones in our backpacks and avoid the temptation and the risk.

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Does Marijuana Decrease Brain Function?

College is a time when many students begin experimenting with many things, including alcohol and illegal drugs. One of the most popular and enduring of these is marijuana. Despite some of the world’s most prominent and successful figures, such as Morgan Freeman, Bill Gates, and Barack Obama admitting to using marijuana in the past or present, there is still a stigma associated with it that it makes people lazy or stupid. While the success of those previously mentioned seems to do away with that notion anecdotally, the scientific results have been mixed.


One study performed at Washington University reviewed MRI scans of the brains of 241 sets of twins, where some sets had both smoked marijuana, some had just one user, and some has neither as users. The results suggested that the portion of the brain that deals with emotions and rewards was shrinking in the subjects who were marijuana users. Another study performed by Dr. Tomas Paus looked at the MRI scans of around 1500 adolescent boys two times, at age 15 and at age 19. The results appeared to show a thinning of the outer layer of the brain in those who were marijuana users. Finally, a study performed in New Zealand that followed subjects from their birth until they were nearing 40 showed lower IQ scores in people who had smoked marijuana, and especially in those who were frequent users. The researchers also surveyed people with close relationships to the subjects and found that those who smoked marijuana were struggling more in everyday life. The most surprising result of this final study is that subjects who began using marijuana during adulthood appeared to be less effected than those who began during their teenage years. However, despite these studies pointing towards marijuana having negative effects of cognition and success, there is certainly the possibility of confounding variables or chance being the reason for these results.


Overall, while there is no definite link between marijuana and decreased cognitive function, these studies do all make the case that pot can hold people back from their full potential and interfere with the brain. The research on this subject will certainly continue, especially with more and more states legalizing or decriminalizing marijuana in some form.

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Are Video Games Making Us Violent?

As a boy who grew up in the mid-2000s, I have and continue to play a lot of video games, many of which are violent in nature. They help me relieve stress, are a fun way to spend free time, and have overall been a great part of my childhood and beyond. However, some critics, such as disbarred attorney Jack Thompson and former presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton, say that violent video games are to blame for many of society’s problems. Mr. Thompson has gone so far as to call violent video games, such as Call of Duty and Grand Theft Auto, “murder simulators”. While almost everyone can agree that this is an extreme exaggeration, many do believe that there is at least a minor link between playing video game and violent personality traits. So what’s the truth?


An article from the New York Times gathered together several different experiments that test the effects of violent video games. One study from Iowa State University gathered two groups of students, had one group play 15 minutes of Mortal Kombat and the other do nothing, then asked them to put hot sauce on food for students who did not like spicy food. The consensus was that the students who had played the game had given significantly more hot sauce than the students who had not. Another study found that high school aged boys who played violent games were involved in a higher number of schoolyard fights than those who didn’t. While both of these studies seem to point to video games causing more aggression in adolescents, the real answer is not so clear cut. According to government statistics cited by the Times, violent youth crimes have fallen dramatically during the span in which violent games have risen to prominence. So why do the studies suggest the opposite? The results of those studies could be due to chance or the file drawer problem.


In summary, it cannot be known for sure whether violent video games are causing the youth of today to be more aggressive and predisposed to crime. Many studies have been done and many more will likely be done in the future, but the true answer is anyone’s guess. In my opinion, video games are fine in moderation and when used by people of the appropriate age.

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How to Beat the Winter Blues

Is there anything worse than waking up for class on a dreary day in the middle of January? It’s freezing outside, there’s no sunlight to be found anywhere, and you’re completely miserable. This is a struggle that just about everyone has gone through at some point. There’s an actual name for it as well: winter depression.


Winter depression, another name for seasonal affective disorder (SAD), is caused by a variety of factors. These include lack of sunlight, changes in the air we breathe, and changes in the chemical makeup of our brains (WebMD). It’s difficult to ascertain just how many people are affected by this disorder as most cases likely go unreported, but estimates say the number is in the millions (TechHive). There are many symptoms of SAD, as depression of any kind can manifest itself in a multitude of ways. Some symptoms of winter specific SAD include feeling lethargic, insomnia, weight gain, and even considering or committing suicide (MayoClinic). There are several ways of treating SAD, including medication and exposure to artificial sunlight. No matter how treatment is sought, it is important to try to beat the winter depression however possible.

One new treatment that has people buzzing is the Life Light. Created by students at the NuVu school in Massachusetts, the Life Light (pictured below) is a set of bulbs that goes on a window, covered by see through drapes. The result is the appearance of real sunshine coming into the consumer’s house. While it obviously isn’t actual sunlight, the light shining combined with the placebo effect of it coming through the window makes it very possible that this invention could treat the seasonal depression of many sufferers (TechHive).


In summary, winter depression is a disorder that affects millions across the globe. In many cases, it’s not terribly serious and can be solved with some fresh air and the knowledge that spring is just around the corner. But for some, it’s much more serious and can even be life threatening. In those cases, light therapy, medication, or the Life Light may be the only way to help pull yourself out of the funk.



Should We Lower the Drinking Age in the US?

Lowering the drinking age is an idea that has been proposed since the day it was put in its current place in 1984 (Huffington Post). To younger people, it seems like an awesome idea that allows them to freely do what they likely already do, but without need for sneaking around or the possibility of arrest. To older people, it seems like a terrible idea that would put drunken teenagers all over the roads and make the country a less safe and less moral place.

In America, alcohol has become something of a taboo subject, as is often the case when something is outlawed. It makes people want to do it. Most European countries have a drinking age of 18 or less, yet their young adults are often noted for their moderation as compared to Americans. According to the Huffington Post, Europeans are around alcohol their entire lives, with many having a drink at dinner from a young age. This destigmatization is a main component of the reason you see less alcohol related deaths in Europe than in America (WHO). Drinking is not a big deal and thus is more controlled. Alternatively, Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) claims that the raised drinking age has been responsible for 900 less fatal car accidents involving alcohol per year (MADD).


Personally, I agree that the main reason for underage binge drinking in this country is the stigma associated with alcohol. If we were to adopt a more European approach to alcohol, with a focus on drinking in moderation, perhaps the death tolls would be lower and there would be more responsible young people.



I Just Don’t Dig On Science, That’s All

Hey, how’s it going everyone? My name is Tyler Azar, I’m a sophomore from Johnstown, PA. I’m in Smeal and planning to study finance. In high school, I never had any interest in science classes. I took the required ones and did well enough because they were fairly basic, but it just never excited me. Even last semester when I took Astro 001 online, it didn’t do much for me. In all honesty, I took this class based off of the recommendation of an article on Onward State. The article said that the class is straightforward, as easy as a college level science class is going to be, and that Andrew’s accent is lit. So far, one of those three has been true. I’m hoping the other two are as well.

You can kind of infer from the previous paragraph as to why I’m not planning to be a science major, but in the interest of full credit, I’ll reiterate. I’m not planning to be a science major because it holds no interest for me, I wouldn’t do well in a science based career, and I would do better in pretty much any other area of study. The first two classes did get me interested in what Andrew has to offer, so hopefully that continues and this can be a great class!

I’m including a picture of Harambe and a link to a song that makes me think of him, both to satisfy the requirements of the assignment AND because he must never be forgotten


Goodnight Sweet Prince