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Women suffer from concussions differently than men do, according to new research, and it could change the way they're treated.
"For the first time, we're seeing a difference in the response of chemicals due to injury because we're now able to study women," said Dr. Alex Lin of Brigham and Women's Hospital.
Historically, most studies of sports-related brain injury have focused on male athletes, according to Lin, co-author of a study published yesterday in Frontiers in Neurology.
"A handful of papers looked at changes in women. A lot more of this type of research can be done," Lin said. "Very little work has been done so far."
In the recent study, researchers collected data from Canadian college hockey players, both men and women, before the start of the season, midseason and after the season ended. They found a significant change in certain brain chemicals, even for players who didn't suffer from concussions.
Many had sub-concussive injuries from repetitive minor head injuries that fall short of producing a full concussion but still change brain chemicals related to neuro health, according to Lin.
Glutamate, a messenger chemical in the brain, was of particular interest to Lin because of the different levels in men and women over the course of the season.
In women, there is a decrease in the chemical and in men there is an increase, which is typically shown in a lot of concussion studies, Lin said. If glutamate levels are too high in the brain, it can kill brain cells. If glutamate levels are too low, it can hamper the ability for the brain to communicate with different cells.
"Both could potentially be harmful," Lin said.
Researchers think the reason why the impact on the brain differs based on gender has to do with hormones. The symptoms and indicators doctors look for when diagnosing a concussion in men versus women could be revised as a result of this chemical difference.
"The changes we're measuring could potentially impact the choice of medical care to athletes after a concussion," Lin said.
Right now, the standard care is for players to stop playing and wait for recovery.
"I think as more scientific knowledge becomes available, we will better understand markers of injury and better govern how athletes will be treated by their injuries," Lin said.
Lin, a father of two girls active in sports, hopes to continue researching to find out more about recovery and increase awareness about concussions in women.
"We really need to view this in a different light, that women and men can't be treated in the same way," Lin said. "Going forward, those differences in gender need to be taken into consideration."
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