(CN) – Playing a single season of high school football can change players’ brain composition, potentially exposing them to brain injuries and health conditions that can lead to severe mental impairment and death.
Players’ gray and white matter changed after just one season of play, which could lead to more significant brain damage over time, according to findings presented at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America.
Football’s connection to severe brain injuries and associated health conditions has been discussed and examined over the past decade, as research has shown how repeated hits to the head can lead to chronic conditions – often years or decades before they’re typically experienced.
“We know that some professional football players suffer from a serious health condition called chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE,” said lead author Elizabeth Moody Davenport, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas. “We are attempting to find out when and how that process starts, so that we can keep sports a health activity.”
In order to examine the connection between head injuries and football, the researchers studied 24 players from a high school football team in North Carolina. The players wore a helmet outfitted with the Head Impact Telemetry System (HITS) during each game and practice.
Players underwent pre- and post-season imaging, which measured the magnetic fields produced by brain waves and white-matter integrity, among other data.
“We saw changes in these young players’ brains on both structural and functional imaging after a single season of football,” Davenport said.
The researchers calculated the change in imaging metrics between the pre- and post-season imaging exams, measuring changes observed on diffusion imaging and abnormally increased delta-wave activity from magnetoencephalography (MEG) scans. The results were then compared to player-specific data from the HITS.
“MEG can be used to measure delta waves in the brain, which are a type of distress signal,” Davenport said. “Delta waves represent slow wave activity that increases after brain injuries. The delta waves we saw came from the surface of the brain, while diffusion imaging is a measure of the white matter deeper in the brain.”
The researchers found that players with greater exposure to head impacts had the largest change in MEG metrics and diffusion imaging.
“Changes in diffusion imaging metrics correlated most to linear acceleration, similar to the impact of a crash,” Davenport said. “MEG changes correlated most to rotational impact, similar to a boxer’s punch.”
The researchers also noted that despite the brain changes, none of the 24 players were diagnosed with a concussion during the study.