Concussions suffered by National Football League (NFL) players may lead to changes in their brain structures, seen much later in their lives according to a new study by a crack team of neurologists and neuropsychologists at the UT Southwestern Medical Center and the Center for BrainHealth at UT Dallas.
For their study the team studied the relationship between hippocampal volume, memory performance and concussion severity in a group of former NFL players with an average age of 58 and compared the results with those of an identical study of a similar group of 21 men with no history of concussion or professional football experience (control group).
The exercise revealed that the hippocampus—a part of the brain involved in memory—was smaller in the group of NFL players as compared to the control group. The researchers reported that some of the players even showed signs of Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI), a condition that typically affects memory and may lead to dementia. The NFL players with the worst record of concussions showed the most pronounced abnormalities.
It is still not clear what accounts for the reduction in the size of the hippocampus among athletes with more serious concussions. The release, however, states that while ageing could be a part of the reason, the studies showed that the shrinkage is most dramatic among those showing sign of MCI and even more notable among NFL players who met the criteria for MCI. Based on these evidences the report infers that there may be a cumulative effect of concussion history and MCI on hippocampal size and function.
Said C. Munro Cullum, PhD, professor of Psychiatry and Neurology and Neurotherapeutics, and co-author of the study: “We found that aging individuals who had experienced concussion and loss of consciousness had smaller hippocampal volumes and lower memory test scores. However, there was no such relationship among those with a history of concussion but none of losing consciousness, which represents the vast majority of concussions.”
Cullum continues by saying that this is a preliminary study, and there is much more to be learned in the area of concussion and cognitive aging.