New research focusing on children has found that playing just a single season of youth football can put them at risk for measurable brain changes – even if they never received a clinical diagnosis of a concussion. For the study published online Monday in the journal Radiology, researchers focused on 25 male youth football players between the ages of 8 and 13 during a single season of play. The study subjects were evaluated before and after the season with multimodal neuroimaging, including an advanced MRI technique to determine microstructural changes in the brain’s white matter. Researchers looked for changes in white matter and fractional anisotrophy (FA), which is the movement of water molecules in the brain and along axons.
The researchers found a significant relationship between head impacts and decreased FA in specific white matter tracts and tract terminals. “We do not know if there are important functional changes related to these findings, or if these effects will be associated with any negative long-term outcomes,” Whitlow said. “Football is a physical sport, and players may have many physical changes after a season of play that completely resolve. These changes in the brain may also simply resolve with little consequence. However, more research is needed to understand the meaning of these changes to the long-term health of our youngest athletes.”