Just One Season of Playing Football Changes a Child’s Brain

You don’t have to be a seasoned football player to sustain brain damage from the game. Scientists found tiny changes in the white matter of young boys who played just one season of football.

According to USA Football, there are approximately 3 million youth participating in organized tackle football across the country. Numerous reports have emerged in recent years about the possible risks of brain injury while playing youth sports and the effects it may have on developing brains. However, most of the research has looked at changes in the brain as a result of concussion.

According to a new study, scientists detected brain changes in young kids who played just one season of football. Researchers have found measurable brain changes in children after a single season of playing youth football, even without a concussion diagnosis, according to a new study published online in the journal Radiology.

“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,” said the study’s lead author, Christopher T. Whitlow, M.D., Ph.D., M.H.A., associate professor and chief of neuroradiology at Wake Forest School of Medicine in Winston-Salem, N.C.

Researchers observed 25 boys between the ages of 8 and 13 who participated in a youth football program in North Carolina.

Each child agreed to wear a special helmet that measured impacts they sustained during play. . Head impact data were recorded using the Head Impact Telemetry System (HITs), which has been used in other studies of high school and collegiate football to assess the frequency and severity of helmet impacts. In this study, HITs data were analyzed to determine the risk weighted cumulative exposure associated with a single season of play.

From there, the scientists compared the data against MRIs of the players’ brains taken before and after the season. The pre- and post-season evaluation involved multimodal neuroimaging, including diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) of the brain. DTI is an advanced MRI technique, which identifies very small structural changes in the brain’s white matter. In addition, all games and practices were video recorded and reviewed to confirm the accuracy of the impacts.

The results showed a significant relationship between head impacts and decreased FA in specific white matter tracts and tract terminals, where white and gray matters meet.

“We found that these young players who experienced more cumulative head impact exposure had more changes in brain white matter, specifically decreased FA, in specific parts of the brain,” Dr. Whitlow said. “These decreases in FA caught our attention, because similar changes in FA have been reported in the setting of mild TBI.”

It is important to note that none of the players had any signs or symptoms of concussion.

“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,” Dr. Whitlow said. “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.”

And they found tiny changes in the white matter of the boys’ brains — the more shots to the head a child took, the more changes he had. And they didn’t have to be concussion-inducing hits.

White matter is often referred to as the brain’s subway because it connects different areas of neuron-rich gray matter.

It’s unclear if the changes will persist over time or if they could cause any long-term alterations to important brain functions, like memory or attention span.

But the study’s authors say their findings are still concerning because the brain’s white matter is still developing during childhood.

Researchers say they will continue to follow some of the players to gather more information. But in the meantime, they say the results shouldn’t prevent kids from being physically active in sports.