Even mild hits in contact sports changing the brain

Even mild hits in contact sports changing the brain

Press releases may be edited for formatting or style | June 18, 2020 Alzheimers/Neurology MRI
Suffering a concussion can cause serious and often lasting damage in the brain. For athletes, it could be one strong blow to the head during a tackle or an aggressive head-first check into the boards.

But what about all of those minor hits to the head in everyday practices?

Western-led research now shows that those mild impacts are causing subtle brain changes even in the brains of otherwise healthy, symptom-free athletes. These are changes, according to researchers, that may not reveal their true damage until decades later.

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“Even with no concussions, the repetitive impacts experienced by players clearly had effects on the brain,” said Ravi Menon, a Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry professor and principal investigator on the study. “We were able to show – quite strikingly – a very obvious trend in athletes who play contact sports over multiple seasons.”

The study, Longitudinal changes of brain microstructure and function in nonconcussed female rugby players, was published June 17 in Neurology, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology.

The study followed 101 female varsity athletes at Western – 70 who played rugby and 31 who participated in either rowing or swimming. The idea was to compare the brains of athletes who played contact sports with age- and sex-matched controls involved in the same level of intense exercise without the contact.

It is the first study of its kind to use another group of athletes as the control rather than using baseline pre-season measures.

The athletes wore devices to record head impacts during practices and games to provide insight into the amount of impact they were experiencing in a regular season. Researchers also used high-field magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) brain scans to look for changes in the structure of the white matter in the brain and how the different brain regions communicate with each other.

The study showed that rowers experienced zero impacts while 70 per cent of rugby players experienced an average of three impacts during two practices and one pre-season game.

The research team found changes to the microstructure of the white matter in the brains of rugby players. In some, those changes increased over time. While they also seemed to recover slightly in the off season, there was evidence they worsened over multiple seasons.

Those same changes were not evident in the brains of swimmers or rowers.

“These white matter tracts connect all the areas of the brain. They are the highways along which information travels. When you damage them, you have difficulty moving information around,” Menon said. “Your brain finds ways to reroute the information along a different route, which is why you won’t be able to find any difference behaviourally.”

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