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A Single Season Of Football Can Change A Kid's Brain, New Research Shows

Researchers inserted sensors into football helmets to study the brains of young players.
Researchers inserted sensors into football helmets to study the brains of young players.

The horror stories about football and brain damage keep flowing out of the NFL, but surprisingly, little is known about how the sport affects the brains of young players. 

Elizabeth Davenport helped conduct  research at UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas that is finally starting to map things out. The study focused on youth and high school football players between 8 and 18 years old. Researchers took images of the athletes' brains and learned how they change after just one season.

On the technology was involved with the study:

The football helmets are the same helmets that you can buy in the store. We insert a sensor into the natural gap in the helmet padding, and what that tells us is how fast and how hard these players are getting hit over the season, how many times.

Then, we take that and we calculate it using an algorithm developed at Wake Forest University [in North Carolina], into this risk weighted cumulative exposure. So, what is the risk of concussion over the season from all of these head impacts? We did that using fMRI, which is a functional MRI, as well magnetoencephalography (MEG). Both of them measure the functional workings of the brain.

A patient in the study receives a MEG test.
Credit Radiological Society of America
A patient in the study receives a MEG test.

On the brain's default mode network:

The default mode network is this network when you're just kind of sitting around daydreaming, not really paying attention to anything, and it helps with introspection and self-awareness. We know people, who have had a concussion or other brain diseases, will have an alteration in the their default mode network, which points to alterations in the whole brain.

On concussions hanging around for seasons:

All of our studies are pointing towards subconcussive impacts causing a change in the brain. Everything that we've seen has shown that just a normal football season will cause changes in the brain. And then we also see that if you have a concussion prior to the season, your brain changes differently. So, it points towards a concussion never kind of ending.

On how these concussions affect the human body:

We don't know yet. There's a lot of talk about  CTE and these NFL players and having these really detrimental effects on your life. But in the youth football players we see these changes in the brain  before we see a change in their behavior and their cognitive ability. So, they're still doing really well in school, they're still great kids; we're not seeing a whole lot of changes in their outward personality. But what the MRI and what the MEG sees is a little bit different, and it is telling this kind of "micro-story" of what is going on in the brain.

Football helmet with embedded sensors.
Credit Radiological Society of America
Football helmet with embedded sensors.

On what can be done to prevent these types of injuries:

There is so much that can be done. One of the best things that parents can do is be vigilant and watch their children, know when their child is acting differently, see if it's a concussion. Then, we can change the equipment, [get] better football helmets, better padding, things like that.

What we're finding is that practice is where the most head impacts occur. So you can change the way someone practices and still get the same outcome. Even though we're looking at games and you can move the kick-off line — which the NFL did a couple of years ago; it resulted in less concussions — we can do a lot of minor changes that won't change the spirit of the game.

Elizabeth Davenport is a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Radiology and the Advanced Imaging Research Center at UT Southwestern in Dallas.

Interview responses have been edited for clarity and length.

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