Repeated head trauma can lead to specific deficits in memory and cognition as well as structural changes, according to a small pilot study on former NFL players conducted by researchers at Johns Hopkins.

Researchers conducted PET and MRI scans as well as memory tests on nine former NFL players ranging in age from 57 to 74.

The former players all had a history of concussion. They were compared to nine age-matched controls with no history of brain injuries.

In the PET scan, which focused on the translocator protein that signals damage and repair in the brain, former players showed concentrated zones with high levels of the protein where injury occurred, while the controls had low levels of the protein spread throughout the brain.

The scans showed that the former players had accumulated injuries in several temporal medial lobe regions of the brain, including the amygdala, which plays a role in mood, and the surpamarginal gyrus, which is linked to verbal memory.

The players’ brains also showed atrophy of the right side of the hippocampus, indicating that the region could have shrunk in size due to prior damage. The players also scored low on memory tests, particularly in verbal learning and memory.

Researchers hope that the evidence, while preliminary, helps illustrate the long-term consequences of repeated traumatic brain injury and helps inform player safety decisions. 

A team of Johns Hopkins specialists, using a battery of imaging and cognitive tests, has gathered evidence of accumulated brain damage that could be linked to specific memory deficits in former National Football League (NFL) players experienced decades after they stopped playing the game.

Results of the small study of nine men provide further evidence for potential long-term neurological risk to football players who sustain repeated concussions and support calls for better player protections.

Boys who start playing tackle football before the age of 12 may face a higher risk for brain damage  as adults, according to research published in Neurology.

In 2011, investigators recruited former National Football League (NFL) players to participate in an ongoing study called DETECT. The players’ average age was 52, and all had played at least two years in the NFL and 12 years of “organized football.” All had sustained a comparable number of concussions throughout their careers. All had a minimum six-month history of mental health complaints, including problems with thinking clearly, behavior, and mood. All underwent a standardized battery of neurological testing to assess learning, reading, and verbal capacities, as well as memory and planning skills.

All the players performed below average on several of the assessments. But by many measures, the overall mental functioning of those who started playing before age 12 registered roughly 20% below that of those who started at age 12 and older.

The early start group performed worse in terms of immediate and delayed verbal-recall tests, and were deemed less mentally “flexible” than the 12-and-up group.

The study authors pointed out that, on average, children who play football between the ages of 9 and 12 experience between 240 and 585 head hits per season, with a force that is comparable to that experienced by high school and college players.


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