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New study finds Playing a single high school football season can cause changes in teenage brain


November 17, 2018 – A summer soccer football can cause tiny changes in brain structure, according to a new study by UC Berkeley, Duke University and North Carolina University Chapel Hill.

Researchers used a new type of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to get brain drain from 16 high school students aged 15 to 17 before and after a football season. They found significant changes in the gray matter structure at the front and back of the brain, where the impacts are more likely to occur, as well as changes in the structures that are deep inside the brain. All participants wore helmets and none of them suffered severe impacts to cause a concussion.

The study, which is the cover of the November issue of Neurobiology of Disease, is one of the first to look at how the impact impact affects children's brains in this critical age.

"It is obvious that recurrent headaches, even in a short period of time, can cause changes in the brain" said senior author Chunlei Liu, a professor of electrical engineering and computer science and a member of the Neuroscience Helen Wills Institute at UC Berkeley. "This is the period when the brain is still growing when it is not yet mature, so many critical biological processes happen, and it is not known how these changes we can observe can affect the way the brain matures and grows."

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A blanket on the head may be nothing to sweat. However, rising evidence suggests that repeated strokes in the skull – such as those injured when playing sports such as hockey or football, or through explosions in military battles – can lead to long-term decline in cognitive function and increased risk of neurological disorders , the blows do not cause a concussion.

Over the last decade, researchers have found that a worrying number of retired soldiers and professional footballers and soccer professionals are showing signs of a newly-called neurodegenerative disease called CTE, which is characterized by accumulation of pathogenic tau proteins in the brain. Although not yet well understood, CTE is thought to cause mood disorders, cognitive decline and eventually motor malfunction as an elderly patient. The definitive diagnosis of CTE can only be done by examining the brain for tau protein during autopsy.

These findings have raised concerns about whether recurrent head injuries can cause brain damage to young people or high school students and whether it is possible to detect these changes at an early age.

"There are many emerging elements that show that only impact-impaired sports alter the brain and you can see these changes at the molecular level in the accumulations of various pathogenic proteins associated with neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson's disease and dementia" Liu said. "We wanted to know when this is happening – how early does this happen?"

A gray and white matter

The brain is built of white matter, long nerve wires that transmit messages back and forth between different areas of the brain, and gray matter, tight nerve neurons that give the brain its characteristic wrinkles. Recent MRI studies have shown that playing a season or two high school football can weaken white matter, which is mainly inside the brain. Liu and his team wanted to know if repeated headaches could also affect the brain's gray matter.

"Gray matter in the bark is outside the brain, so you would expect this area to be more directly linked to the impact itself" Liu said.

The researchers used a new type of magnetic resonance imaging called the diffusion of diffusion to examine the complex nerve digesters that make up the gray matter. They found that the organization of gray matter in the players' brains changed after a football era, and these changes were correlated with the number and position of the head effects measured by accelerometers placed inside the helmets of the players.

The changes were concentrated in the anterior and posterior parts of the cerebral cortex, which are responsible for higher order functions such as memory, attention and knowledge, and the centrally located chamber and putamen, which relay sensory information and coordinate movement.

"Although our study did not see the consequences of the observed changes, there are new indications that these changes would be harmful in the long run" Liu said.

The tests revealed that cognitive function of the students did not change during the season and it is not yet clear whether these changes in the brain are permanent, the researchers say.

"The microstructure of the brain of younger players continues to grow rapidly and this can counteract the alterations caused by recurrent effects on the head" said the first author, Nan-Ji Gong, postdoctoral researcher at UC Berkeley's Department of Electrical and Computer Sciences.

However, researchers still require attention – and frequent cognitive and cerebral monitoring – for young people and students who are involved in sports outbreaks.

"I think it would make sense to discuss at what age it would be more crucial for the brain to endure these consequences, especially given the popularity of youth football and other sports that have an impact on the brain" Liu said.

The co-authors are Samuel Kuzminski of the University of Oklahoma. Michael Clark, Melissa Fraser and Kevin Guskiewicz of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Mark Sundman of the University of Arizona. and Jeffrey R. Petrella from the School of Medicine at the University of the Duke.


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