Rough & tumble of the football field affects brain development

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Girls playing football
Girls playing football

Study shows that in young football players normal processes are hampered

The rough play on a football field may have damning consequences for a young kid.

A new study has revealed that young football players may experience a disruption in brain development after a single season of the sport. The study was presented at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America (RSNA).

“This research demonstrates that playing a season of contact sports may affect normal gray matter pruning in high school and youth football players,” said Gowtham Krishnan Murugesan, M.S., research assistant in the Department of Radiology at UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, Texas.

“This research demonstrates that playing a season of contact sports may affect normal gray matter pruning in high school and youth football players”

The brain is highly complex with an abundance of neural connections. New connections are formed, and unused connections fall away in a process called pruning. Much like cutting back dead or unnecessary branches keeps a tree healthy and helps it grow, brain pruning is necessary to healthy brain development.

“Pruning is an essential part of brain development,” Murugesan said. “By getting rid of the synapses that are no longer used, the brain becomes more efficient with aging.”

The researchers set out to determine whether exposure to repetitive head impacts affects normal pruning of the brain in young football players.

For the study, 60 youth and high school football players without history of developmental, neurological or psychiatric abnormalities and no history of concussion prior to or during the season were studied. They were outfitted with the Head Impact Telemetry System (HITS). HITS helmets are lined with accelerometers or sensors that measure the magnitude, location and direction of impacts to the head. Impact data from the helmets were used to calculate a risk of concussion exposure for each player.

“Disruption in normal pruning has been shown to be related to weaker connections between different parts of the brain,” Murugesan said. “Our study has found a significant decrease in gray matter pruning in the frontal default mode network, which is involved in higher cognitive functions, such as the planning and controlling of social behaviors.”

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