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Youth Football Causes Brain Changes After Just 1 Season

Is it safe for your son or daughter to participate in contact sports? Even if your child has never had a concussion, a new study says that just one season of youth football can cause brain changes in child athletes. 

Every fall, millions of American kids toe up to the line for another season of youth football. But now, a study suggests that even one season of contact football can result in negative changes to young brains.

Greg DeLong was a professional football player with the Minnesota Vikings for six years. He told NBC News he feels like a “walking time bomb” because he could end up with Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), a brain condition resulting from repeated hits to the head. Now he is worried his 12 year-old son Jake could follow in his footsteps.

“Football’s important to us, but there are other things out there that are more important,” he said.

So Delong, Jake, and 24 other players from his youth football team paired up with a research team from Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center to see how less serious blows to the head affects student athletes throughout the season. The team’s helmets were equipped with Head Impact Telemetry Systems (HITS), which pick up the force of impacts on the field. This data was then assessed for frequency and severity of helmet impacts. The child athletes were also evaluated using multimodal neuroimaging, including MRIs.

The researchers were looking for changes in the white matter of the kids brains and how water molecules moved along axons there (called fractional anisotrophy (FA)). In healthy white matter, water flows in a uniform direction with high FA measurements. Random water movement and lower FA values tend to occur along with brain abnormalities. Lead researcher, Christopher Witlow, an associate professor and chief of neuroradiology at Wake Forest reported the findings:

“We found that these young players who experienced more cumulative head impact exposure had more changes in brain white matter, specifically decreased FA, in specific parts of the brain. These decreases in FA caught our attention, because similar changes in FA have been reported in the setting of mild [traumatic brain injury (TBI)].”

The study also showed that the rougher a player’s season, the more FA disruption occurred, even without any outward signs of concussion.

Whitlow warned that it is too soon to say what the long-term effect of these findings will be on the players:

“Football is a very physical sport, so there are lots of changes in the body after a season of football,” he said. “Players have cuts and bruises, and after the season these go away. Perhaps the change we’re seeing is just another one of those physical manifestations of playing a season of football that will just go away.”

The study will continue for another three years, hoping to gain some understanding of how the brain changes affect youth football players in the long run.

David Christensen is a brain injury expert at Christensen Law. If you have suffered a brain injury, contact Christensen Law today for a free consultation.