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One Season of Football Causes Brain Changes in Children

One Season of Football Causes Brain Changes in Children

Before we continue, let it be known that the studies don’t show yet if the changes that occur are long-term or short term or if they are even meaningful. But the premise is that having this information now can provide a basis for research in the future (as well as caution on the side of the parents/coaches).

Researcher Dr. Christopher Whitlow, chief neuroradiologist at Wake Forest School of Medicine in Winston-Salem, N.C. reviewed imaging scans that shows “microstructural” changes in 25 male athletes in their white brain matter. These athletes ranged in ages from 8 to 13 and it was also found that some of the changes didn’t occur as a result of a concussion.

The research also showed “some associations between the amount of change in the brain and the amount of exposure to head impacts […] the more exposure they’ve had, the more change you see”. Which makes sense. But none of these changes can be seen without imaging studies, so future research is a must.

Will it Away?

We all know that at the end of the season, players are covered in injuries. As Whitlow stated “Football is a very physical sport, so there are lots of changes in the body after a season of football […] 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.”

What are They Really Concerned About?

The concern is for those that suffer from impacts to the head, but aren’t classified or resulting in a concussion. Youth football players brains are still undergoing rapid change and development and even though they don’t have a brain injury the minor impacts may still have an effect on development over time.

The Study

In order to study this they took 25 players from a local youth teem in 2012-2013 season. Each had an advanced MRI scan on their brain done at the beginning of the season and again at the end for comparison. In order to add to the study each player also had a helmet that was outfitted with sensors that measure impact severity and these were correlated with videos as well to ensure that the impacts were true. They did this for practices and games. During the season, none of the participants suffered a concussion. The changes seen in the two MRI’s shows that the more exposure to head impacts the more changes to white brain matter that was seen. White brain matter is the communication network between the various regions of the brain.

Dr. Christopher Giza, director of Steve Tisch BrainSPORT Program and professor of pediatric neurology and neurosurgery at the University of California noted that “A big strength of this study is they [the researchers] have this very quantitative measure that can essentially count the magnitude, the size and the number of impacts […] that’s certainly more objective than relying on an athlete or coach to tell you that somebody has symptoms.” Having that information is important. But Giza did note that the study needs more players in order to be more conclusive, because while all players suffered hits, some suffered far more which can skew the results. Having more people in the study could help balance that out.


Even though the brain showed changes, here weren’t any noticeable changes to the players themselves. “So the question becomes, what do these changes mean? And that we don’t have an answer to, yet” Whitlow stated.

Whitlow is continuing to tract some of the students in a five year longitudinal study and are also reviewing cognitive tests and analyzing that data.

Whitlow’s end notes are this, which is why the study is continuing “There are some additional questions we need to ask,” he said. “What becomes of these changes? Do they linger? Do they go away? Do they have any long-term consequences?”


Christopher Giza, M.D., Ph.D., director, Steve Tisch BrainSPORT Program, and professor, pediatric neurology and neurosurgery, University of California, Los Angeles;

Christopher Whitlow, M.D., Ph.D., associate professor and chief, neuroradiology, Wake Forest School of Medicine, Winston-Salem, N.C.

Oct. 24, 2016, Radiology


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