Head Impact From a Single Football Season May Affect Brain Development


A 2018 study presented at the Radiological Society of North America (RSNA) annual meeting found that young football players may experience a disruption in brain development after a single season of playing the sport.  

The researchers’ goal was to determine whether repetitive head impact affects normal pruning of neurons in the brains of young players. For the study, 60 youth and high school players with no history of concussions or developmental, neurologic, or psychiatric abnormalities were outfitted with Head Impact Telemetry System (HITS) helmets, which are lined with sensors that measure the magnitude, location, and direction of impacts to the head. 

Impact data from the helmets were used to calculate the risk of concussion for each player. Based on each player’s cumulative head impacts as determined by the helmet technology, players were divided into two groups: high-impact players (n = 24) and low-impact players (n = 36). Pre- and postseason resting state functional MRI scans were performed on all players, and changes within five components of the default mode network (DMN) were analyzed. 

Postseason results showed significant increases in power and gray matter volume in the frontal DMN in subjects in the high-impact group. "This research demonstrates that playing a season of contact sports may affect normal gray matter pruning in high school and youth football players," said Gowtham Krishnan Murugesan, MS, research assistant in the Department of Radiology at UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, Texas. "Disruption in normal pruning has been shown to be related to weaker connections between different parts of the brain. Our study has found a significant decrease in gray matter pruning in the frontal DMN, which is involved in higher cognitive functions, such as the planning and controlling of social behaviors."

The researchers hope to conduct further study to fully understand the long-term changes in resting state brain networks and how those changes are related to neuropsychological task performance.


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