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Brooks Schuelke, a brain injury lawyer of Perlmutter & Schuelke, LLP in Austin, wants the world to know that researchers “are finding out that even a very slight blow is all that is needed to begin the cascade of faulty brain signals being sent through the brain’s white matter.”
The studies indicate that there are differences in the white matter of the brain in contact sport athletes versus non-contact sport athletes, according to the attorney. The study group results raise the question as to what factors may account for the changes in memory and learning ability and whether those changes are short-term or long-term.
“The study involves 80 college footballers and hockey players that had no history of concussions. Each athlete had a brain scan and took several memory and learning tests. Subsequently, group members received a high-tech helmet that recorded the acceleration rate of the head after an impact,” he said, adding the data from the concussion-free players was compared to athletes who played in non-contact sports.
The whole group was broken out into subgroups that identified players scoring lower than what was expected on their tests, according to Schuelke. Roughly 20 percent of contact sport players and 11 percent of non-contact sport players showed a change in the nerve networks on the right side of their brains. In summary, the changes in white matter in athletes playing contact sports were higher in the poorly performing group, which indicated a likely link to how hard and how often a player had been hit in the head.
The fact that low level concussions may also cause serious brain issues later in life for younger players is something parents, schools and other educational institutions need to take into consideration when designing sports programs, according to Schuelke. The latest revelations that a concussion has the capacity to double an individual’s risk of developing epilepsy within five years is yet another reason to closely examine the risks of sports that typically involve head injuries.
“There are approximately 173,285 brain injuries every year, sustained as a result of playing sports. Most of the victims are boys who play football and girls who participate in cheerleading. Of the 173,285 head injuries, at least 70.5 percent of the patients are between the ages of 10 and 19-years-old. These figures are food for thought about the safety of our younger generation,” he added. “If your child is playing a contact sport and they have not been properly warned about the risks involved or have not been provided with the right type of protective equipment, and they get hurt, we need to discuss compensation for those injuries.”
New research suggests that even in the absence of a concussion, blows to the head during a single season of football or ice hockey may affect the brain’s white matter and cognition, or memory and thinking abilities. The study is published in the December 11, 2013, online issue of Neurology®, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology. White matter is brain tissue that plays an important role in the speed of nerve signals.
“We found differences in the white matter of the brain in these college contact sport athletes compared to non-contact sport varsity athletes,” said study author Thomas W. McAllister, MD, of Indiana University School of Medicine in Indianapolis. “The degree of white matter change in the contact sport athletes was greater in those who performed more poorly than expected on tests of memory and learning, suggesting a possible link in some athletes between how hard/often they are hit, white matter changes, and cognition, or memory and thinking abilities.”
The work was completed while McAllister was with the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth in Hanover, NH.
The study involved 80 concussion-free Division I NCAA Dartmouth College varsity football and ice hockey players who wore helmets that recorded the acceleration-time of the head following impact. They were compared to 79 non-contact sport athletes in activities such as track, crew and Nordic skiing. The players were assessed before and shortly after the season with brain scans and learning and memory tests.
The study found that a subgroup of both types of athletes performed worse than predicted on a test of verbal learning and memory at the end of the season. A total of 20 percent of the contact players and 11 percent of the non-contact athletes scored more than 1.5 standard deviations below the predicted score. McAllister said a decline this large would have been expected in less than seven percent of a normal population. This subgroup showed more change in the corpus callosum region of the brain than the athletes who scored as predicted on the test. The corpus callosum is a bundle of nerves that connects the right and left sides of the brain.
“This group of athletes with different susceptibility to repetitive head impacts raises the question of what underlying factors might account for the changes in learning and memory, and whether those effects are long-term or short-lived,” said McAllister.
The study was supported by the National Institutes of Health and the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment.