Youth Football Causes Brain Changes, New Study Shows

Most studies focused on the effects of football on retired players, however recent research conducted specifically on children shows it could put the young ones at a risk for brain changes.

Dr. Christopher T. Whitlow, the lead study author and an associate professor and chief of neuroradiology at Wake Forest School of Medicine in Winston-Salem, N.C said, "Most investigators believe that concussions are bad for the brain, but what about the hundreds of head impacts during a season of football that don't lead to a clinically diagnosed concussion? We wanted to see if cumulative sub-concussive head impacts have any effects on the developing brain."

The study was done during a single season of play and focused on 25 male youth football players between the ages of 8 and 13. The subjects were evaluated before and after the season using multimodal neuroimaging, including an advanced MRI technique to determine microstructural changes in the brain's white matter and all the games were recorded.

Results show a significant relationship between head impacts and decreased FA, the white matter and fractional anisotrophy which is the movement of water molecules in the brain and along axons. According to Dr. Whitlow, they have found a significant decrease in FA on the young boys who have experience cumulative head impacts. "These decreases in FA caught our attention, because similar changes in FA have been reported in the setting of mild [traumatic brain injury (TBI)," Whitlow said.

He added, ""We do not know if there are important functional changes related to these findings, or if these effects will be associated with any negative long-term outcomes. Football is a physical sport, and players may have many physical changes after a season of play that completely resolve. These changes in the brain may also simply resolve with little consequence. However, more research is needed to understand the meaning of these changes to the long-term health of our youngest athletes."

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