New research shows that a single season of high school football may lead to changes in the brain, underscoring the importance of improving safety and continuing research on the risks associated with the sport.
Dr. Alexander Powers, a researcher at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center and co-author of the new study, said that the jarring discovery came after he and a colleague outfitted a 2012 varsity team with helmet-mounted accelerometers. "It's able to capture linear and rotational accelerations that can then be used to figure out what forces have been applied to the head," he explained. "During the season, we captured every single hit. Every practice, every game.”
The 45 players involved in the study also underwent brain scans before and after the season. Although none of the players suffered a concussion, many of them displayed alterations in their brains’ white matter — “the conduction part of the brain," Powers explains. Closer analysis revealed that the more hits a player got, the more distinct were the alterations.
"The fact that we do have this abnormality in the white matter that correlates so well with the amount of hits that kids had is really striking,” he added.
The research follows in a growing series of papers illuminating the risks football carries for adolescents and young adults. Last year, the American Academy of Pediatrics cautioned that returning to school and sports after a concussion may be more complicated than previously thought. Similarly, a study from the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia found that use of electronics may double recovery time following head injury.
"I think the current discussion about concussion and young athletes says, 'Well, yes, the kids get concussion in football but they get it in a lot of other sports too, such as soccer and hockey,' etc.," Dr. Lyle Micheli, director of sports medicine at Boston Children’s Hospital, told HealthDay. "The difference, however, is that this study raises the concern in a sport such as football, where much of the tactic of the game is to hit with your head.”
Broadly speaking, the key to limiting head trauma among players is sensible coaching, the team explains. With the majority of hits being recorded during practice rather than actual games, coaches have the ability minimize the amount of trauma to which each player is exposed. During games, the same could be accomplished with better enforcement against late head hits.