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One Season of High School Football Results In Brain Changes

Study after study finds negative effects on the brain from playing football - here it is one season of high school football resulting in measurable brain changes. None of these players had a concussion during the season, and so the negative effects were from subconcussive head impacts or hits. Interestingly, those special helmets they wore to measure impacts showed no relationship with what the brain scans showed - so the helmets were basically useless in measuring subconcussive impacts. From Science Daily:

Head impacts from single season of high school football produce measurable change in brain cells

Repeated impacts to the heads of high school football players cause measurable changes in their brains, even when no concussion occurs, according to new research. Researchers gathered data from high school varsity players who donned specially outfitted helmets that recorded data on each head impact during practice and regular games. They then used experimental techniques to measure changes in cellular microstructure in the brains of the players before, during, and after the season.

"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," said senior author Dr. Joseph Maldjian, Chief of the Neuroradiology Division and Director of the Advanced Neuroscience Imaging Research Lab, part of the Peter O'Donnell Jr. Brain Institute at UT Southwestern.

In the study, appearing in the Journal of Neurotrauma, a team of investigators at UT Southwestern, Wake Forest University Medical Center, and Children's National Medical Center evaluated about two dozen players over the course of a single football season.....During the pre-season each player had an MRI scan and participated in cognitive testing, which included memory and reaction time tests. During the season they wore sensors in their helmets that detected each impact they received. Post-season, each player had another MRI scan and another round of cognitive tests. 

Researchers then used diffusional kurtosis imaging (DKI), which measures water diffusion in biological cells, to identify changes in neural tissues. ....DKI also allowed the researchers to measure white matter abnormalities. White matter consists of fibers that connect brain cells and can speed or slow signaling between nerve cells. In order for the brain to reorganize connections, white matter must be intact and the degree of white matter damage may be one factor that limits the ability of the brain to reorganize connections following TBI.

Football has the highest concussion rate of any competitive contact sport, and there is growing concern -- reflected in the recent decrease in participation in the Pop Warner youth football program -- among parents, coaches, and physicians of youth athletes about the effects of subconcussive head impacts, those not directly resulting in a concussion diagnosis, researchers noted. Previous research has focused primarily on college football players, but recent studies have shown impact distributions for youth and high school players to be similar to those seen at the college level, with differences primarily in the highest impact magnitudes and total number of impacts, the researchers noted.

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