It only takes one football season to damage the brain, study shows

The head impacts suffered in a single season of high school football can cause changes to the brain, according to a new study.
Published in the Journal of Neurotrauma, the study team reported brain changes even in players that were not diagnosed with a concussion.
“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,” senior author Dr. Joseph Maldjian, neuroscience researcher at the University of Texas Southwestern, said in a press release.

How did the team reach this conclusion?

In the study, researchers assessed around two dozen players over the course of a single football season. The group of players was not big enough to draw conclusions on the effects seen between different positions, scientists said. More research studies will be needed to ascertain what positional differences mean clinically for individuals, the study team 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 co-author Dr. Elizabeth Davenport, a postdoctoral radiology researcher at UT Southwestern.
Before the season, study participants had their brains scanned via MRI and took part in cognitive assessments, which included memory and reaction time trials. During the season, the players had sensors in their helmets that recorded each impact they felt. After the season, each player had a second MRI scan and follow-up round of cognitive tests.
Scientists then used diffusional kurtosis imaging (DKI), which detects water diffusion in biological cells, to recognize transformations in neural tissues. DKI evaluation has been utilized to identify shifts in neural tissues caused by brain development, brain injury and disease such as autism spectrum disorders, attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), Alzheimer’s disease, traumatic brain injury (TBI), stroke, schizophrenia, and mild cognitive impairment. DKI also permitted the scientists to evaluate white matter irregularities.
“Work of this type, combining biomechanics, imaging, and cognitive evaluation is critical to improving our understanding of the effects of subconcussive impacts on the developing brain,” Maldjian said. “Using this information, we hope to help keep millions of youth and adolescents safe when engaged in sports activities.”
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