University Athletes Show Brain Changes That May Lead To Future Negative Cognitive Effects, Study Finds

Football Head Injuries in College Could Lead to Future Problems

Sports, particularly at the university level, are nothing short of sacred for so many — and this is most true for the dedicated athletes who give their all to excel in their field. In fact, when we think of sports, words like fitness, fortitude, stamina and optimized health come to mind; but college football head injuries could have serious future consequences.

A new study published in the journal Frontiers of Neurology finds that brain changes from contact sports show up earlier than previously imagined — even as early as college.

The fact that so much of the previous analysis around football head injuries has focused on long-term consequences motivated the researchers to search for more evidence. The research serves as a platform to further investigate potential adverse outcomes of younger athletes who participate in collision sports. For this study, researchers did MRIs on 65 healthy college-level varsity athletes (who had never suffered concussions prior) before their seasons begun:

  • 23 participants played “collision” sports (such as football and hockey)
  • 22 played contact sports (such as soccer and basketball)
  • 20 played non-contact sports (such as volleyball)

The results were crystal clear: the more contact, the more brain changes noted by the researchers, who were mostly looking for changes in white matter and reduced communication within certain areas of the brain, especially those associated with movement and vision.

Even though contact exposure does not seem to lead to severe clinical impairments, the researchers suggest that the study describes a neurobiological “signature” of contact exposure. This conclusion might shed important light on the potentially harmful cognitive effects — altered tissue microstructure and reduced neurometabolic function — that seem to come with these types of sports.

“An important question for future research,” the study states, “is whether these MRI markers can be used to detect an “exposure threshold” to contact participants for which the brain cannot adapt, which may explain the negative long-term health consequences seen in a minority of athletes.”

Earlier this month, researchers from Boston University’s Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) found that people who played tackle football before the age of 12 experienced difficulties with managing behavior and depression symptoms later in life.

Just last July, another team of investigators out of Boston University found CTE in 110 out of 111 brains of dead NFL football players.

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