Researchers Present Two New Studies Focusing on Youth Football and Its Impact on The Brain


Orange County, CA - December 7th 2017 -  Earlier this month, at the annual Radiological Society of North America (RSNA) conference, researchers with UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas and Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem presented two new studies centered on youth football and its impact on the brain. According to the study’s findings players, as young as nine years old, experience alterations in brain connectivity after only a season of play. The concussions and high-impact injuries these players experience hinder development at a young age even with little exposure. Previously held theories believed prolonged exposure caused the most detrimental damage.

Both studies analyzed the default mode network (DMN), brain sections active during wakeful rest. Changes in the DMN are observed in patients with mental disorders and decreased connectivity within the network is often associated with traumatic brain injury.

“The DMN exists in the deep gray matter areas of the brain,” says Elizabeth M. Davenport, Ph. D., a post-doctoral researcher in the Advanced Neuroscience Imaging Research (ANSIR) lab at UT Southwestern’s O’Donnell Brain Institute. “It includes structures that activate when we are awake and engaging in introspection or processing emotions, which are activities that are important for brain health.”

Concussions for Youth Football Players Can Impact Brain After One Season

In the first study, researchers studied 26 football players ranging in age from 9-13 years old without a history of concussions to identify the repercussions of repetitive impact on the DMN. Gowtham Krishnan Murugesan, a Ph. D. student in biomedical engineering and member of the ANSIR lab noted, “This work adds to a growing body of literature indicating that sub-concussive head impacts can have an effect on the brain.  This is a highly understudied area at the youth and high school level.” All 26 players in the study wore helmets lined with Head Impact Telemetry System (HITS) technology for an entire football season. This technology is composed of sensors measuring the magnitude, location, and direction of cerebral impacts. This data aided researchers in the calculation of concussion risk exposure for each player.

Using machine learning, Murugesan and the research team found that the “research suggests an increasing functional change in the brain with increasing head impact exposure.”  One of the largest reasons head impact affects this age range so quickly is precisely due to their age. “The brains of these youth and adolescent athletes are undergoing rapid maturation in this age range,” Murugesan adds. “This study demonstrates that playing a season of contact sports at the youth level can produce neuroimaging brain changes, particularly for the DMN.”

In the second study, 20 high school football players from 14-18 years old wore helmets outfitted with HITS technology for the duration of a full season. Out of the 20 players, five had experienced at least one concussion, and 15 had no history of concussions. Before and after the season, players underwent an eight-minute magnetoencephalography (MEG) scan, which records and analyzes the magnetic fields produced by brain activity. Researchers then cross referenced the MEG power associated with the eight brain regions of the DMN. Post-season, the five players with a history of concussion had significantly lower connectivity between DMN regions. Players with no history of concussion had, on average, retained higher DMN connectivity by comparison.

The results demonstrate that old injuries can have significant impact on the extent of new injuries, and furthermore injures received in adolescence can be the most inimical to an individual’s health. The researchers agreed that larger data sets, longitudinal studies, and research combining MEG and fMRI data are needed to further comprehend complex factors involved in concussions.


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