Multiple concussions may change brain function in young athletes, study finds

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Researchers say several head injuries may have long-term impacts on brain health

Several studies have pointed to the health risks that are likely to arise when young athletes experience multiple head injuries. Now, researchers from the American Academy of Neurology are exploring the risks associated with suffering recurring head trauma

According to their findings, multiple concussions during a young athletic career may increase the likelihood of more severe injuries with later concussions. The study also showed that changes to brain function, including blood flow to the brain and microstructure, are more common among frequently injured young athletes. 

“We know conclusions may have long-term effects on the brain that last beyond getting a doctor’s clearance to return to play,” said researcher Tom A. Schweizer, Ph.D. “It is unclear, however, to what extent the effects of repeated concussion can be detected among young, otherwise healthy adults. We found even though there is no difference in symptoms or the amount of recovery time, athletes with a history of concussion showed subtle and chronic changes in their brains.” 

The long-term effect of brain trauma

For the study, the researchers evaluated the brain function of nearly 230 young athletes. Some of the group had recently experienced a concussion, and nearly half of them had a history of concussions. The team analyzed brain scans of those who had recently been injured for up to a year after they had been cleared to resume play to understand what impacts the injury had on their overall brain function. 

The researchers learned that consistent head injuries can have long-term impacts. The study showed that no history of concussion was associated with a cerebral blood flow of 53 mL per minute, per 100g of brain tissue. Those numbers decreased to 40 mL per minute, per 100g of brain tissue for those with persistent head injuries. 

The brain scans also showed subtle changes to the microstructure of the splenium, which plays a role in sending sensory information from one hemisphere of the brain to another. The researchers say it is frequently affected when concussions occur.

Considering these scans were taken a year after the athletes had been cleared to resume activity, these findings highlight the long-term risks associated with experiencing consistent concussions. 

“Our findings suggest that an athlete with a history of concussion should be watched closely, as these subtle brain changes may be worsened by repeated injury,” Dr. Schweizer said. “Additionally, our results should raise concern about the cumulative effects of repeated head injuries later in life.” 

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