Brains of young football players do not appear to be more vulnerable to changes from head impacts

Friday, June 29, 2018

NEW ORLEANS – Younger brains do not appear to be more susceptible to changes due to head impacts than older brains, suggests imaging research of middle school and high school football players. The study, presented today at the National Athletic Trainers’ Association (NATA) 69th Clinical Symposia & AT Expo, shows that brain changes are more likely related to the magnitude and quantity of impacts, which are greater in high school than middle school football.


“Many speculate that young kids shouldn’t play football because their brains are more vulnerable, but that doesn’t appear to be true. Instead of stopping kids from playing a very popular sport – which may be the only way some get exercise – the focus should be on reducing exposure to head impacts and potentially improving protective technologies to help make sports safer for all students,” said Kim Barber Foss, MS, LAT, ATC, co-author of the study, athletic trainer and senior research assistant in the Division of Sports Medicine at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital. “It’s really important to have athletic trainers support injury prevention by working with coaches to improve strategies that reduce injury risk and, most importantly, fully rehabilitate injured athletes before they return to their sports.”


Researchers conducted magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans of 12 middle school and 21 high school football players before and after a single football season. The athletes also wore accelerometers in their helmets during the season to track head impacts. Researchers compared the two scans for each child to assess the difference in whole brain axial diffusivity (AD), with a decrease indicating changes to the structure of the brain. The accelerometer recorded significantly more head impacts in the high school athletes than the middle school players. Even adjusting for head impact exposure, the scans showed a greater change in AD in high school compared to middle school students.


“While it is likely better not to see changes in the brain of youth players, there may be other factors that underlie the structural changes in the brain. These children aren’t necessarily having observable neurological problems,” said Gregory Myer, PhD, co-author of the study and director of research for the division of sports medicine at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital. “Research suggests we can tolerate and recover from some level of head impact exposure and the exercise associated with sport participation is extremely beneficial to the health of youth. We are still working to determine the threshold when we should be concerned about brain changes and the types of head impacts that should be avoided.”


Sports provide an important opportunity for kids to get off the couch and away from their smart phones and get vital exercise, researchers say. They are continuing to look at how injury can be prevented while maintaining the integrity and opportunity for sport participation, which may include reducing the number of full-contact practices and amount of tackling drills in practice, rule changes, education and improving protective equipment technology.