• Robb G. Best

Grey Matters

Parents won’t run out of things to worry over any time soon.

A 2016 Pew Research Center report surveyed Americans with children under 18 and found that 60% of these parents worry about their child getting bullied, while 54% fear their child might at some point suffer from anxiety or depression, and a full 50% of responding parents fret over the possibility of their child getting kidnapped.

However, here’s one danger the concerned parents might not have considered: high school football. Researchers with the University of California, Berkeley, Duke University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill recently finished examining the impact of full-contact football on the adolescent brain, and the results are well, troubling.

Using a new kind of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) called diffusion kurtosis, the scientists scanned the brains of 16 high school football players, all between the age of 15 and 17. The young brains were scanned before and after playing a season of football—with helmets, and without any impacts severe enough to merit a concussion.

The result was observable changes in the organization of grey matter before and after the season. Thanks to accelerometers mounted in the teens’ helmets during play, the researchers were able to demonstrate that these brain changes lined up with the number and position of the head bonkings each player received. The most commonly impacted—and thus affected—areas were the front and back of the cerebral cortex, which pertain to memory, attention and cognition, as well as the more central thalamus and putamen, which are integral to relaying sensory information and coordinating movement.

This news comes at a time of rising awareness of the long-term damage caused by head injuries. More and more, the evidence seems to suggest that repeated blows to the head, even ones that don’t cause concussions, can lead to cognitive decline as well as neurological disorders.

Formerly known as dementia pugilistica or "punch drunk syndrome", chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) is a neurodegenerative disease that was first observed in boxers in the 1920’s. As you might guess from the name, it is thought to result from repeated head trauma. Its symptoms include loss of memory, mood disorders, and eventually motor impairment. At present, the only way to conclusively diagnose someone with CTE is to wait until they die and perform an autopsy of their brain, checking for buildup of disease-causing tau protein.

In the past few years, CTE made headlines as report after report emerged suggesting that various NFL players exhibited symptoms. A 2017 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that, of a sample of 111 deceased NFL players, 110 showed signs of CTE.

To be fair, the 16 teenage subjects of the experiment all took tests before and after the season to measure their cognitive function, and the results didn’t demonstrate any brain damage. Also, it’s unclear how much lasting effect these changes would have on a growing brain, and 16 is not a large enough sample size from which to draw lasting conclusions. Still, it’s enough to make a nervous parent consider signing their kid up for chess club instead.

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