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Brain injury

Youth football head impacts ‘can have long-term effect on brain’

Cognitive effects noted in young players who did not receive a concussion diagnosis



Repetitive head impacts in youth football can result in longer-term changes in brain function, new research has revealed. 

A new study monitored the brain vital signs of 15 male youth football players, aged 14 or under, during pre- and post-season play, who did not sustain a concussion diagnosis during the season.

The international research reported cognitive processing sensitivity to subconcussive impairments in those players who did not sustain a concussion diagnosis over the course of the season. 

In addition, changes in brain vital signs were highly related to the number of head impacts that the players were exposed to during the season.

“By monitoring brain vital signs, extracted from complex brain waves measured using portable electroencephalography (EEG), it was possible for us to track three well-established neural responses for auditory sensation, basic attention, and cognitive processing in these youth football players,” says Dr Thayne Munce, the study’s principal investigator. 

“The results of the study show that repetitive subconcussive impacts triggered compounding effects in brain function changes over time. While more research needs to be done in this area, this is the first step in how we can look at youth contact sports in the future.”

The research – jointly completed by Sanford Research in Sioux Falls, South Dakota; Simon Fraser University (SFU), and HealthTech Connex Inc, at the Health and Technology District in British Columbia, Canada – revealed:

  • Significant brain vital sign changes in pre-to-post season cognitive processing speed.
  • A significant relationship between the subconcussive brain vital sign changes and head impact exposures as measured by the total number of head impacts as well as number of games and/or practices over the season.
  • The authors noted that the brain vital sign changes and total number of head impacts for the football players closely related with the results from older, Junior-A, ice hockey players from a previous study.

This youth football study replicated and built on previous Junior-A and Bantam youth ice hockey concussion and subconcussion study results, which resulted in the same findings, confirming significant brain vitals sign changes and concussive/subconcussive impairments in youth contact sport that went undetected using current clinical concussion protocols.

“These findings provide further support that there is a predictive relationship between head impact exposure in contact sport and subtle changes in cognitive brain function” reports Dr Shaun Fickling, the study’s lead author.

“The results are really quite positive and optimistic for the future of brain injury prevention and management in sport,” further explains Dr Munce. 

“Now that we can sensitively detect changes associated with subconcussive impacts, it is possible to identify the leading ways to prevent, treat, and manage possible impairments, which is a critical step that is now getting underway.”