Football and the teenage brain
A single season of high school football may be enough to cause microscopic changes in the structure of the brain, according to research by electrical engineering and computer sciences professor Chunlei Liu, senior author of a multi-university study. To assess the effect of repetitive head impacts, the research team used two types of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) — called diffusion kurtosis and quantitative susceptibility mapping — to take brain scans of high school players before and after a season of football. Although all participants wore helmets, and none sustained a concussion, the researchers still found intricate changes in the structure of the grey matter in the front and rear of the brain, where impacts are most likely to occur, as well as changes to structures deep inside the brain. The changes corresponded with the amount and location of head impacts, as measured by accelerometers mounted inside the players’ helmets. The researchers also tested the players’ cognitive function, but found no changes during the study. Because the players are young and their brains are still developing, it is unclear whether the changes to the brain identified in this study will be permanent. Still, the researchers recommended caution, as well as frequent cognitive and brain monitoring, for young people who play impact sports.