A new study on brain injuries and football reveal that even one season of youth football can result in brain damage.
A study presented Monday at a meeting of the Radiological Society of North America found that head impacts in a single year of football can affect the brain’s effectiveness in “gray matter pruning,” or clearing out dead synapses.
Gowtham Krishnan Murugesan, M.S., a research assistant at UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, likened the process to pruning a tree to ensure its health.
“Pruning is an essential part of brain development. By getting rid of the synapses that are no longer used, the brain becomes more efficient with aging,” Murugesan said. “This research demonstrates that playing a season of contact sports may affect normal gray matter pruning in high school and youth football players.”
The study looked at 60 youth and high school football players with no history of concussions. Researchers outfitted the players with helmets featuring sensors to detect the magnitude, location and direction of impacts to the head.
Afterward, the players were split into two groups, high-impact players and low-impact players, based on their risk of cumulative head impact exposure.
Researchers found that the high-impact players had more “gray matter volume” that had not been pruned.
“Disruption in normal pruning has been shown to be related to weaker connections between different parts of the brain,” Murugesan said.
Wake Forest University researchers who looked at the same group of players determined most head impacts happened during practice.
“By replacing high-impact practice drills with low- or no-impact drills, the overall head-impact exposure for players can be reduced,” Murugesan said.
An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll earlier this year found roughly half of Americans would discourage their children from playing football because of concern about concussions. This number has grown in recent years in the wake of studies such as this, along with news about former NFL and college players struggling with Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) issues.