Pre-teen football linked to brain alterations in NFL players


While child football players aren’t capable of making the crunching, brain-rattling tackles seen in the National Football League, a new study shows that brain development can be affected by playing football at a young age.

Published in the Journal of Neurotrauma, the study found NFL players who started playing organized football before the age of 12 had a greater risk of altered brain development as opposed to those who started playing at a later age. The study is the first to show a link between early repetitive head trauma and future structural brain variations.

In the study, researchers reviewed 40 former NFL players between the ages of 40 and 65 who played over 12 years of structured football, with a minimum of two years at the NFL level. One half of the players took up football prior to the age of 12 and half started at age 12 or later. The number of concussions suffered was very similar between the two groups. All of these players had a minimum of six months of memory and cognitive issues.

“To examine brain development in these players, we used an advanced technique called diffusor tensor imaging (DTI), a type of magnetic resonance imaging that specifically looks at the movement of water molecules along white matter tracts, which are the super-highways within the brain for relaying commands and information,” study author Dr. Inga Koerte, professor of neurobiological research at the University of Munich and visiting professor at Harvard University, said in a press release.

Don’t hit your head between the ages of 10 and 12

The study team said their work builds on a growing body of evidence showing the brain may be especially susceptible to injury between the ages of 10 and 12.

“Therefore, this development process may be disrupted by repeated head impacts in childhood possibly leading to lasting changes in brain structure,” said study author Julie Stamm, currently a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health.

Despite finding evidence of a neurodevelopmental window where kids are susceptible to repeated head impacts, the relatively small sample size of just 40 individuals means the results cannot be generalized to non-professionals.

“The results of this study do not confirm a cause and effect relationship, only that there is an association between younger age of first exposure to tackle football and abnormal brain imaging patterns later in life,” said study author Martha Shenton, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

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