Young athletes’ brains show changes due to repeated head contact, according to a new study – Markets Insider

soccer collision contact sportsShutterstock/Adam Tinney

Scientists don’t know exactly when head injuries
from contact sports cross the line into dangerous territory.

But a new study published
in the journal

Frontiers of Neurology
shows that brain changes from contact
sports — even games less violent than football, like basketball
and soccer — start to appear earlier than most people think.

Even brains of college athletes show signs of changes.

“To us, the biggest surprise was that we observed any
reliable effects of contact exposure on the brains of young
athletes who are relatively early in their sport careers, and do
not show any health problems,” Nathan Churchill, the study’s
lead author and a postdoctoral fellow at St. Michael’s Neuroscience Research
in Ontario, told Business Insider. “This seems to
show that the brain is remarkably sensitive to the effects of
bodily contact.” 

For the study, researchers conducted brain scans on 65 healthy
university-level varsity athletes before their season started (to
avoid any skewed effects from recent games). The group included
23 participants who played “collision” sports with intentional
contact like football and hockey, 22 who played contact sports
like soccer and basketball, and 20 who played non-contact sports
like volleyball. 

The more contact in the sport, the more brain changes researchers
saw. Researchers noted changes in white matter and
reduced communication between certain brain areas, especially in
brain regions associated with vision and movement. Effects of
older concussions could also be spotted in the brains, even
though no one with a recent concussion was allowed to participate
in the study. 

The authors wrote that their results could help identify a
sort of “neurobiological ‘signature’ of contact exposure.”

It’s not too surprising that young football
and rugby players showed signs of brain changes
. There’s
significant evidence that professional football players may
develop the degenerative brain disease CTE due to the repeated
hits they receive. The latest
findings from one ongoing study of deceased former players’
found that 110 out of 111 had developed the
disease (though in most of those cases, they were in the
study due to suspicions of CTE). 

But it’s noteworthy that brain changes were also apparent in
athletes whose sports don’t involve as many collisions.

ncaa womens soccer
players who are still perfectly healthy show signs that their
brains have been exposed to contact.

Darren Abate/Getty Images

The recent study didn’t find anything similar to the brain
changes seen in former NFL players. To be clear,
Churchill said that “we cannot definitively call our findings
evidence of ‘brain damage,'” since the typical markers of damage
from brain injuries were not seen in the group studied.

The observed changes could even be a sign of a healing
process. But they could also indicate that there’s
a point at which head contact makes long-term health
problems more likely.

“It would be more accurate to say that we are seeing how the
healthy brain responds to contact exposure, which includes
possible changes in organization of white matter, and altered
patterns of brain activity,” he said.

The study implies, however, that brain changes that could later
become significant start to appear at a young age. And it’s an
indication that some brain changes linked to contact occur even
if kids aren’t playing hard-hitting sports like football or
lacrosse (though players of those sports showed more brain
changes than players of lower contact sports).

Given the findings on professional football players and the
long-term impacts of head injuries, many people have expressed
concerns about letting their kids play contact sports. Even a
number of NFL players have said
they’d only let their kids play football
 if tackling and
collisions could be limited.

Gaining a better picture of what a brain that has
experienced collisions looks like could help researchers
determine which types of long-term health outcomes
result from different kinds of contact. And that could help
parents of young or aspiring athletes make more informed


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