WHAT’S BEING CLAIMED:
- Initial findings of a study showed that nerve fibers in brains scans of youngsters changed in size after one season of playing football.
- MRI results showed that some nerve fibers contracted while some increased in length.
- The noted changes can affect brain functions during development among young people.
A study of brain scans among young football players show signs of strain in nerve fibers after a season of playing football. The strain impacts the development of the cognitive, motor and sensory functions during brain development in young people.
Presented in Chicago at the Radiological Society of North America annual meeting, these initial findings found that the nerve fibers in the corpus callosum changed over the season. The corpus callosum is a thick band of nerves that connects the left and right sides of the brain and allows communication between both hemispheres.
Scans of 26 young male football players with an average age of 12 were examined using specialized MRI approaches. MRI scans were taken before and after one season of playing and were compared to 26 other young males who didn’t play football. Lead study author Jeongchul Kim of Wake Forest School of Medicine in Winston-Salem, NC said that the two imaging methods used separately analyzed the shape and integrity of the nerve fibers.
After the initial MRI scans of the football players during the start of the season, the research team noted that some nerve bundles lengthened, while some shortened. But no changes were seen in the integrity of the bundles.
These results, according to the researchers, indicate that the shape of the corpus callosum change as a result of repeated blows to the head. Such changes critically affect the integration of brain functions between the two halves of the brain, especially during brain development.
Several studies that focused on the aftereffects of repeated head injuries on adult athletes during sports have emerged since the degenerative brain disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy was discovered in the early 2000s. While stories about NFL and collegiate players are important, there is a growing concern that young athletes experiencing the same kind of injuries may also be vulnerable to their effects.
“You have to understand that the NFL players were also most likely once collegiate players, high school and were probably youth players,” says co-study author and radiologist Christopher Whitlow. “To us, it’s more of a question about long-term cumulative exposure rather than just concussions,” he added.
Because of this, Whitlow says, “We don’t know yet what it means. Naturally, the next questions that follow are: Do these persist over time? Do they accumulate with several seasons? Or Does it have any relevance to long-term health?
These latest findings are only a part of a puzzle researchers are trying to solve, says Dr. Gerard Gioia, a neuropsychologist at Children’s National Health, who focused on the functional outcomes of football playing in kids in the study. In the meantime, he says there are still a lot of unanswered questions.