(CN) – High school athletes in contact sports experience changes to their brain structure and function, with participants in sports involving violent body contact experiencing more severe neurological alterations, according to a new study.
Published Tuesday in the journal Frontiers in Neurology, the findings add to the growing body of scientific evidence regarding the physical and mental risks posed by collision sports like football.
In order to measure such effects, researchers at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto, Canada, performed preseason and postseason brain scans on 65 varsity athletes – 23 in collision sports, 22 from contact sports such as basketball, and 20 from non-contact sports like tennis.
The team found athletes in both collision and contact sports showed neurological damage in brain function, structure and chemical markers that are generally associated with brain injury. These changes were not seen in the participants in non-contact sports.
While most research in this area has focused on the long-term effects for athletes in collision sports, in which players are exposed to potentially hundreds of impacts in a single season, the impact of playing contact sports is less clear.
The team defined contact sports as those in which body-to-body contact is allowed, but is not necessarily as violent or integral as in collision sports. The study reviewed female and male athletes in a variety of sports.
Changes identified in the study include differences in the structure of the brain’s white matter, fiber tracts that allow various parts of the brain to communicate. Athletes in collision sports also had signs of decreased interaction between brain areas and reduced activity in general, especially within areas involved in vision and motor function, compared to participants in non-contact sports like volleyball.
Despite the concerning findings, the identified neurological effects do not significantly impair day-to-day functioning, according to study co-author Tom Schweizer, head of the neuroscience research program at St. Michael’s. Athletes in the study did not report major health problems.
Schweizer said the research fills a critical gap in identifying how contact impacts healthy brains – a step toward determining why a small number of athletes in contact sports experience long-term health issues.