The Radiological Society of North America released some troubling news for hockey and football players today. Science News reported the following: “According to the study some high school football players exhibit measurable brain changes after a single season of play even in the absence of concussion.” An associate professor at Wake Forest University explained that the data indicate that “even one season of play in a contact sport can affect the brain in the absence of clinical findings.”
The small high school study included only twenty-four high school players ages 16-18 who were monitored with Head Impact Telemetry System (HITs) helmet-mounted accelerometers These devices are used in youth and collegiate football to assess the frequency and severity of helmet impacts. The researchers also tested each player after the season with an advanced MRI technique that can identify small changes in the brain’s white matter, notably the corpus callosum and deep white matter tracts — areas previously found to be altered after mild traumatic brain injuries. A member of the research team explained, ”Our study found that players experiencing greater levels of head impacts have more loss compared to players with lower impact exposure.” However, the study didn’t look at brain function, so the cognitive effect of the observed brain-structure changes remains unknown. The team cautions that because the sample was so small, these findings are preliminary, and more study is necessary.
However, caution is key! In 2013 a more extensive analysis of 80 Division I college football and ice-hockey players found that the more the brain changed over a single season, the worse athletes did on learning and memory tests.