A new study published in “Radiology” this week draws a relationship between children playing competitive football and changes in brain tissue. While this seems like common sense, such research will lead to better decision-making on kids and contact sports.
The findings, while subtle, are unmistakable – after only one season of football, kids 8-13 years of age demonstrated observable changes in the microstructure of their white matter. Before and after MRI studies correlated football trauma with the disruption of brain cells, inviting closer scrutiny to learn to minimize the risks, and discussion on how to inform parents about potential harm.
“We’re seeing some associations between the amount of change in the brain and the amount of exposure to head impacts,” said lead researcher Dr. Christopher Whitlow, chief of neuroradiology at Wake Forest School of Medicine. “The more exposure they’ve had, the more change you see.”
Whitlow wasn’t prepared to comment on the ultimate meaning of this data, insinuating that it could turn out to be less consequential than anticipated – but those who see the nerve system as we do would have good reason to doubt that, despite his political correctness.
The scientists were rightly concerned about blows to the head that do not cause a concussion, as none of the 25 subjects in the study suffered an actual concussion. If there is a concussion, precautions are usually taken to allow healing time and avoid further injury. Short of that, with no obvious neurological deficit, these kids go right back out there to get smacked around again.
The researchers concluded that the brains of young football players are still undergoing rapid development, and repeated hits may have a future effect, even without diagnosable brain disease.
Kids are going to want to play contact sports, and mostly, we want them to do it, to give them exercise, leadership and team-building experience. My boys played hockey and football and my daughter was a competitive cheerleader. But we need to protect these young nerve systems.
Hurting your brain is bad, and not hurting it is good.