Long lasting damage from repeated head injuries in sports is an issue that's all over the headlines. NFL players are especially vulnerable to Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) because of the rough play at the professional level.
However, it's not just the professional players that are at risk. Some experts have pointed out that youths who play sports are prone to concussions in games like soccer and hockey where there is a great deal of physical contact. Recent research backs that up and shows that in some young players, damage to the brain's white matter is still present months after the injury.
A study, published in the American Academy of Neurology's journal Neurology® used MRI scans to point out the remaining damage to the brains of some youth hockey players. Researchers at the University of Western Ontario conducted the study on hockey players between the ages of 11 and 14 who had suffered a concussion during play. To do this, they compared MRI scans of concussed players to a group of similarly aged players who had never had a head injury.
For the players who had concussions, there were MRI scans taken at two different times. The first within 24-72 hours after the injury and the second three months after the injury. By the time the players had the second scan, they had all been symptom-free and had been medically cleared to return to the game.
The MRI scans were a combination of different methods of scanning including functional MRI scans which show brain activity as it happens, diffusion MRIs which evaluate brain function based on how water molecules move through the brain, and MRI spectroscopy which measures the chemical composition of brain matter. When all of this data was analyzed, it was clear that even after being examined by a medical professional and cleared to play, these young players still had white matter damage from the original injury.
Lead author Dr. Ravi Menon, Ph.D. is a professor at The University's Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry and a neuroscientist at Robarts Research Institute. He explained, "What the MRI shows is that there are still changes occurring in the brain even after the clinical tests have returned to normal. This is potentially of some concern, and we'd like to understand this further to determine if these are normal healthy changes or if they are indicative of something that might be going wrong."
Kathryn Manning, a Ph.D. candidate at the university, stated that the damage found from the MRI studies at the time of the injury and three months later was not that different. Also, the activity recorded on the scans indicated that the synapses were still firing in a way that suggested the brain was trying to compensate for the injury. She stressed that it was the sophisticated analysis of data from these high-tech scans that allowed the researchers to really observe the damage. She stated, "We saw that there were prolonged abnormalities in terms of the white matter in the brain. On a normal clinical MRI scan, you typically see the structural images of the brain, and for a mild brain injury like a concussion, we aren't able to see the underlying changes we were able to see using these advanced methods."
Dr. Menon explains the study results further in the video below, take a look.