A new study presented at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America (RSNA) revealed brain imaging exams performed on high school football players after just one season showed changes in both the gray and white matter that correlated with exposure to head impacts.
“We saw changes in these young players’ brains on both structural and functional imaging after a single season of football,” Elizabeth Moody Davenport, Ph.D., a postdoctoral researcher at UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, TX, who led this analysis.
The study included 24 players from a high school football team in North Carolina, each of whom wore a helmet outfitted with the Head Impact Telemetry System (HITS) during all practices and games. The helmets were lined with six accelerometers, or sensors, that measure the magnitude, location and direction of a hit. Data from the helmets was uploaded to a computer for analysis.
“It’s important to understand the potential changes occurring in the brain related to youth contact sports,” Dr. Davenport added. “We know that some professional football players suffer from a serious condition called chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE. We are attempting to find out when and how that process starts, so that we can keep sports a healthy activity for millions of children and adolescents.”
In the study, each player underwent pre- and post-season imaging: a specialized MRI scan, from which diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) and diffusion kurtosis imaging (DKI) data were extracted to measure the brain’s white matter integrity, and a magnetoencephalography (MEG) scan, which records and analyzes the magnetic fields produced by brain waves. Diffusion imaging can measure the structural white matter changes in the brain, and MEG assesses changes in function.
The research team calculated the change in imaging metrics between the pre- and post-season imaging exams. They measured abnormalities observed on diffusion imaging and abnormally increased delta wave activity on MEG. The imaging results were then combined with player-specific impact data from the HITS. None of the 24 players were diagnosed with a concussion during the study.
Players with greater head impact exposure had the greatest change in diffusion imaging and MEG metrics.