Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Brain Changes in College Football Players Raise New Concerns

And there were differences, as it turned out. As a group, the football players had less volume in the hippocampus, a part of the brain involved in memory and emotional processing, than did the nonplayers. Among the players who had no history of concussions, hippocampal volume was as much as 16 percent smaller than the control group’s. And the difference in size was even more striking among the players who had experienced a confirmed concussion, whose hippocampal volume was about 25 percent smaller than in young men who’d never played.

“That was a greater differential than we’d anticipated,” said Patrick Bellgowan, a faculty member at both the Laureate Institute and the University of Tulsa and the study’s senior author.

The results are particularly baffling for the players with no history of concussion. Interestingly, those athletes in each group who had played the most seasons of football tended to have the least hippocampal volume, suggesting that, at least potentially, cumulative playing time and repeated tackles might affect the brain, even without a formal concussion.

Of course, the findings, although provocative, do not in fact show that playing a contact sport shrinks hippocampal volume. “This is a single snapshot” of the players’ brains, Dr. Bellgowan said, and reveals nothing about changes over time. Indeed, the results could indicate that, in some indeterminate fashion, having a smaller hippocampus predisposes someone to enjoy or excel at football — meaning that the anomalous brain structure predated the playing.

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