Subconcussive Football Impacts Can Cause Changes in the Brain: UTSW Study

A recent study done in part by the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center shows repeated impacts to the heads of high school football players can cause measurable changes in the brain, even if there was no concussion.

UTSW released the findings Monday, citing research from UT Southwestern Medical Center's Peter O'Donnell Jr. Brain Institute and Wake Forest University School of Medicine.

Researchers in the study followed about two dozen players who wore specially-outfitted helmets that collected data during practices and games. Each participating player had an MRI and participated in cognitive testing, which included memory and reaction time tests, both before and after the season began. Measurable changes in cellular microstructure in the brains of the players were charted before, during, and after the season.

"Our findings add to a growing body of literature demonstrating that a single season of contact sports can result in brain changes regardless of clinical findings or concussion diagnosis," said senior author Dr. Joseph Maldjian, Chief of the Neuroradiology Division and Director of the Advanced Neuroscience Imaging Research Lab, part of the Peter O'Donnell Jr. Brain Institute at UT Southwestern.

The sample size of players was not large enough to draw any conclusions about the differences in the positions of the players on the field and "additional studies will be needed to determine what the deviations mean clinically for individuals," UTSW said.

"Studies like this are important to understand how and where long-term damage might be occurring, so that we can then take the necessary steps to prevent it," said first author Dr. Elizabeth Davenport, a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Radiology and the Advanced Imaging Research Center at UT Southwestern.

In the news release, UTSW said "the findings contribute to a growing body of knowledge and study about concussions and other types of brain injury by researchers with the Peter O'Donnell Jr. Brain Institute. Among them:

  • In the first study of its kind, former National Football League (NFL) players who lost consciousness due to concussion during their playing days showed key differences in brain structure later in life. The hippocampus, a part of the brain involved in memory, was found to be smaller in 28 former NFL players as compared with a control group of men of similar age and education.
  • A study examining the neuropsychological status of former National Football League players found that cognitive deficits and depression are more common among retired players than in the general population.
  • CON-TEX includes one of the nation's first registries of concussion patients ages 5 and older to capture comprehensive, longitudinal data on sports-related concussion and mild traumatic brain injury patients.
  • The Texas Institute for Brain Injury and Repair (TIBIR), a state-funded initiative to promote innovative research and education in traumatic brain injury, includes a comprehensive Concussion Network that delivers expert brain injury education to coaches, school nurses, athletic trainers, and parents about the risks of sports-related injuries.

The study will appear in the Journal of Neurotrauma and was conducted by a team of investigators at UT Southwestern, Wake Forest University Medical Center and Children's National Medical Center.

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