Players who had been diagnosed with concussions and
those who had been playing for years had smaller hippocampuses - a
brain structure critical to memory - compared to those who never
played football or played for fewer years, researchers found.
“Boys hear about the long-term effect on guys when they’re retired
from football, but this shows that 20-year-olds might be having some
kind of effect,” said Patrick Bellgowan, the study’s senior author
from the Laureate Institute for Brain Research in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
The researchers write in JAMA that they didn’t find any differences
in behavior between players and non-players, but Bellgowan told
Reuters Health that a smaller hippocampus is linked to depression,
schizophrenia and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).
There has been growing concern over whether the connection between
contact sports - like football - and CTE, which is a brain disease
known to affect some athletes who experience repeated hits to the
head, may extend to younger players.
“We keep hearing about retired football players having diseases that
relate back to smaller hippocampuses,” Bellgowan said. “Maybe this
is just the precursor of it.”
The symptoms of CTE, which tend to set in years after the last
traumas, often include memory loss, aggression and dementia.
Between June 2011 and August 2013 the researchers recruited 25
college football players who had been diagnosed with a concussion,
25 players without a history of diagnosed concussion and 25 similar
young men who had never played.
The participants had magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of their
brains and researchers used the images to measure the volume of
certain brain regions. The athletes also took a computerized test to
assess their cognitive abilities.
The researchers found that college athletes had hippocampuses
between 17 percent and 26 percent smaller than non-athletes. Those
who had been diagnosed with concussions also had smaller
hippocampuses than the players without past concussions.
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The longer the young men had played football, the smaller their
hippocampuses were and the slower their reaction time on one of the
Bazarian was not involved with the new research, but has studied the
brains of young athletes at the University of Rochester Medical
Center in Rochester, New York.
“Maybe there is something going on early on,” he said. “None of
these players were feeling bad but their brain structure isn’t
Both Bellgowan and Bazarian said it will take longer studies to find
out whether a smaller hippocampus may cause problems for these
athletes in the future.
For now, Bellgowan suggested that parents and coaches take a
conservative approach when dealing with student athletes by taking
them to specialists when they walk off the field with a headache.
“The conservative approach is what I’m hoping to get out there,” he
Bellgowan is also on the faculty at the University of Tulsa, where,
he said, "Participation of the athletic department was essential to
SOURCE: http://bit.ly/WddS8K JAMA,
online May 13, 2014.
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