Brain Changes in Teen Football Players Without Concussion

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High school football players record changes in brain structure despite not suffering from concussion, according to a study presented at the centennial meeting of the Radiological Society of North America.

The study, which was conducted over the course of one football season, showed that hard hitting players experienced changes in white matter and other areas of the brain. The preliminary data is especially interesting because it involves high school football players aged 16 to 18, rather than college-aged or professional football players.

Christopher Whitlow, MD, PhD, of the Wake Forest School of Medicine in Winston-Salem, N.C., and colleagues conducted the imaging study on 40 members of a high school football team who were fitted with helmets that included sensors to record impacts via a telemetry system. The researchers were able to record enough data from 24 players to split them into two groups: heavy hitters and light hitters.

Diffuse tensor imaging showed statistically significant (P<0.05) areas of decreased fractional anisotropy in the splenium of the corpus callosum and deep white matter traces in the “heavy hitters” compared to players exposed to less impact. Similar changes seen on MRI have been associated with mild traumatic brain injury.

The next step is to determine if the brain structure changes are permanent or not, and if other teens and teen athletes experience the same structural changes.