Football and its relationship to brain health is still very much in the news. In fact, a new study found youth and high school football players who were hit in the head frequently showed signs of damage to their brain development after just one season of playing the sport!
“Football,” said Leanne O’Neil, “is absolutely dangerous to the brain – more so if you are a growing child. We see many football-related injuries here at INDY Neurofeedfack. It’s very troubling.”
In the new study presented at the Radiological Society of North America’s (RSNA) annual meeting, researchers observed 60 youth and high school football players over a single football season. None had prior concussions or histories of developmental, neurological or psychiatric problems.
Twenty-four players were determined to be high-impact players while 36 were placed in a low-impact group (based on each player’s risk of cumulative head impact exposure) according to the Head Impact Telemetry System (HITS), which helps collect data through sensors on the players’ helmets. Most impacts to the head occurred during practice, rather than at actual football games.
Those who experienced a high number of head impacts showed changes in brain pruning, a decrease in gray matter, which controls actions like motor, sensory movements and speech.
“A noticeable disruption in normal pruning means weaker connections between different parts of the brain,” says Leanne O’Neil. “This study found a significant decrease in gray matter pruning in the frontal default mode network of the brain. That’s the area involved in higher cognitive functions, such as planning and controlling social behaviors.”
In related research, the American Medical Association found that 177 former football players, ranging from high school to the NFL, showed some degree of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). CTE is a degenerative brain disease that has been linked to frequent head trauma.
Another study by Scientific American looked at the long-term risks of playing football. The study found more than 40 percent of former NFL players showed signs of traumatic brain injury.
Still another study, reported by TIME magazine, predicted that children who played tackle football before the age of 12 and continued to play in high school would have trouble managing behavior later in life.
Schools, institutions, parents, and coaches are taking notice, and some amendments to football practice, such as reducing the number of contact drills and the National Football League’s recommendation of the elimination of the “running start,” could help decrease the chances of injury. That said, “No child should be at risk of getting hit in the head at full speed,” says O’Neil. “It’s simply too dangerous.”
Currently, the National Institute of Health (NIH) is in the process of requesting more funding to follow up with these players longitudinally, to see if there are any longterm effects.
Chris Nowinski, Ph.D and the CEO and co-founder of the Concussion Legacy Foundation, went on record to caution parents not to allow their children to play tackle football before high school. “The risks to brain development are simply not worth the perceived benefits,” Nowinski said.