High school football players can undergo significant brain changes after only a single season— even if they don’t get a concussion, Wake Forest University researchers have found.
Scientists said the ongoing study of 24 students, ages 16 to 18, from a Winston-Salem, N.C. high school, is the largest and most comprehensive research of its kind.
“There’s been a lot of interest in NFL (National Football League) football and head impacts, and it’s gotten a lot of press,” study author Christopher T. Whitlow, associate professor of radiology at Wake Forest School of Medicine and radiologist at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, told FoxNews.com.
“But for every one NFL player, there [are] 2,000 high school players. Seventy percent of people playing football are adolescents, and it’s a really understudied population,” he said.
To quantify how these hits affected the brain, researchers analyzed players using an advanced MRI technique called diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) pre- and post-season. DTI identifies microstructural changes in the brain’s white matter— an area comprised of millions of nerve fibers called axons that connect various regions of the organ.
DTI measures fractional anisotropy (FA), or the movement of water molecules along these axons. A uniform direction of the water molecules indicates healthy white matter, while an arbitrary movement indicates decreased FA— or microstructural abnormalities. Decreased FA was most prevalent among the heavy-hitter group, the study authors noted.
“Our objective hasn’t been to say that football is bad— it’s to look at ways to increase the safety of the game,” Stitzel said. “We know we can do that through equipment, but we can also do that through rule changes, and better diagnosis and treatment.”