A single season of playing football may be enough to change a young athlete's brain.
These are the preliminary results of the research presented this week in Chicago at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America.
In a brain study of 26 young male soccer players (average age 12) before and after one season, researchers looked at special MRI methods to study nerve bundles in the brain. Twenty-six other young men who did not play football simultaneously received MRI scans, which were used as a control group.
Among the youth who played football, the researchers found that the nerve fibers in their corpus callosum ̵
"We used two different imaging approaches here," he says. One analyzed the shape of the nerve fibers and the other focused on the integrity of the nerves.
Kim says the researchers have found that some bundles of nerves have become longer and other bundles have become shorter or contracted after the players made the first MRI scans at the ISS early in the season. He says they saw no changes in the integrity of the bundles.
The team says these results suggest that repetitive blows to the head could lead to changes in the shape of the corpus callosum, which is crucial for the integration of cognitive, motor, and sensory behavior functions between the two hemispheres during a critical time for brain development in young people.
The researchers say their ultimate goal is to support guidelines for a safer football game for teens.
Since the discovery of degenerative brain disease, chronic traumatic encephalopathy in the early 2000s, research into the effects of repeated head injuries during exercise has been conducted on adult athletes. This focus has been sparked by growing concern that young athletes experiencing the same kind of collision may also be vulnerable to their effects.
The radiologist Christopher Whitlow, a co-author of the new findings, says while the stories about NFL and college players are very important, they need to be put in context.
"It has to be understood that the NFL players were most likely former college teams, they were also high school players and probably also youth players," he says. "For us it is more than a matter of shock, it is a matter of long-term cumulative exposure."
However, both Whitlow and Kim warn that their results are more than what they are: preliminary results from a single study with a relatively low number of participants.
"We do not know what it means," says Whitlow. "The natural next question is whether these changes will persist over time, do they accumulate over several seasons, and then number 3, probably the most important: do they have any relevance to long-term health?"
The results, presented at a medical meeting, are not published in a peer-reviewed journal. Whitlow says the team is working on a paper to be sent to a journal.
This latest discovery is actually part of a long-standing research collaboration between the Southwestern Medical Center at the University of Texas, Wake Forest University, and the Children's National Health System in Washington, D.C.
Dr. Gerard Gioia is a neuropsychological pediatrician at Children's National Health. His role in the larger study is to examine the functional outcomes of children playing football. He says these latest insights are only part of the puzzle they were trying to solve.
"Everyone wants to know," Should my kid play football? Should my child play football? Should my child play ice hockey? "And we say:" Can we please study this and understand it? "Says Gioia, who has been campaigning for funding longer-term studies in the youth and sport sectors.
At the moment they still have many unanswered questions.