It has become all but inarguable that concussions can have a lasting impact on athlete’s brains, accumulating to cause permanent damage and potentially cause chronic traumatic encephalopathy – a degenerative brain disease. However, there is mounting evidence that athletes may not need to experience a concussion to cause significant damage to their brains.
Dr. Christopher Whitlow, chief of neuroradiology at Wake Forest School of Medicine, and his colleagues recently investigated how a typical season of football impacts young athlete’s brains. According to the findings published in the journal Radiology, even players who don’t experience a concussion show visible changes in the brain.
For the study, the researchers equipped 25 athletes between the ages of eight and 13-years-old with special helmets fitted with sensors tracking head impacts. The football players also underwent MRIs at the beginning and end of the season to document any changes resulting from a single season of playing the sport.
Whitlow’s team observed that the players who endured the most impacts to the head showed more changes in the white matter of the brain. White matter is made up of neurons which are essential for communication between different regions of the brain, and damage to these connections at such a young age raises concerns about how the sport may subtly have lasting effects on player’s lives.
Based on the findings of Whitlow’s study, it is hard to discern exactly what effects these changes to the white matter could have.
“There’s a lot we don’t know about the changes,” says Whitlow. “We don’t know if they persist. We don’t know if a couple weeks after the season ends, they go away.”
Whitlow says the differences are so small that many might not notice them just by looking at the MRIs following the end of the season. However, they become clear when comparing the later scans to the ones taken before the start of the season.
The findings have motivated Whitlow to follow a number of the players for additional seasons to observe if additional seasons cause greater changes to the white matter, as well as looking for signs of cognitive deficits related to the white matter changes. He says he hopes to follow players for up to five years to better understand the full implications of this white matter damage.
While the findings are cause for concern, Whitlow says parents shouldn’t discourage their children from being active or even joining the football team. However, he says, “we should do simple things now to protect children, like knowing the signs and symptoms of concussion and teaching them to children, so if they are injured on the field, they can get help from health professionals right away.”