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Head Impacts in Football Cause Brain Changes

Head impacts in football might be leading to changes in the grey and white matter of the brain, says a new study presented at Radiological Society of North America‘s (RSNA) annual meeting.


Scans of brain to measure the integrity of white matter fibres. Photo credits: Radiological Society of North America.

The researchers, led by Elizabeth Moody Davenport from Texas-based UT Southwestern Medical Center, focused on high school football players, and the consequences of head impacts on their brains, given that professional players are known to suffer from certain conditions entailing damage to brain structures.

“It’s important to understand the potential changes occurring in the brain related to youth contact sports,” says lead author Elizabeth Moody Davenport. “We know that some professional football players suffer from a serious condition called chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE. We are attempting to find out when and how that process starts, so that we can keep sports a healthy activity for millions of children and adolescents.”

To evaluate any link between the two, the scientists performed brain imaging analysis of a group of 24 high school football players. The latter wore helmets equipped with the Head Impact Telemetry System (HITS) during both practices and games. Thanks to this device, the magnitude, position, and direction of impacts were measured. This data was then relayed to a computer for evaluation following a football season.

A magnetoencephalography (MEG) scan was performed with the purpose of measuring brain’s delta waves which constitute a distress signal. These waves increase in activity in the aftermath of brain injuries. The researchers also looked into the structure of the white matter of the players. The findings show modifications in the brains of the participants; it is to be noted that all of the young players were subjected to an MRI scan before practices began.

“We saw changes in these young players’ brains on both structural and functional imaging after a single season of football,” reports Dr. Davenport.

More specifically, participants with greater exposure to head impacts displayed more changes in structure and function.

Are these alterations reversible or not? Do they come with more pertinent and more serious consequences? Unfortunately, the researchers cannot as yet reply to these queries.

“Without a larger population that is closely followed in a longitudinal study, it is difficult to know the long-term effects of these changes,” says the author. “We don’t know if the brain’s developmental trajectory is altered, or if the off-season time allows for the brain to return to normal.”

More studies of this nature are being conducted by other researchers, says Dr Davenport, to study the effects of youth contact sports on the brain.


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