A new study published Tuesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association suggests college football players with concussion histories may have smaller brain volumes and slower reaction times than players with fewer years of experience.
The study, conducted by the Laureate Institute for Brain Research (LIBR), looked at 25 college football players that already had a history of concussions and compared them to 25 college football players who had not suffered concussions and 25 non-football-playing control participants. Researchers then measured brain function using an MRI machine, while the participants took computerized cognitive tests.
According to the research, the 25 college football players with previous concussion history had the smallest hippocampal volume when all three groups were compared.
The hippocampus is the brain region responsible for regulating emotion and storing and processing memory. The results may indicate that this region of the brain is particularly sensitive to mild traumatic brain injuries.
Beyond the impact that traumatic brain injuries can have on the hippocampus, the football players with more football experience also experienced slower reaction times than younger players. While the study itself could not provide any answers to this question, the researchers believe that the physical and psychological stressors that college athletes experience during their careers could be a factor.
Due to the small sample size, the study cannot make any definitive claims, but the researchers hope that it will serve as a starting point for further research into the effects of concussions on young athletes.
“Other studies have evaluated the effects on older athletes, such as retired NFL players, but no one has studied 20-year-olds until now — and the results were remarkable and surprising,” the Director of Cognitive Neuroscience for LIBR, Patrick S.F. Bellgowan, told the University of Tulsa. “Our next step is to assess what caused this difference in hippocampus size.”