More needs to be done to protect athletes’ brains from repeated blows to the head, said researchers at Boston University’s CTE Center. (The New England Journal of Medicine via AP)
Long football careers are linked to problems with impulsive behavior and less white matter in the brain, according to a new study by Boston researchers who found that starting tackle football at a younger age was associated with greater white matter loss.
More needs to be done to protect the brains of athletes, especially children, from repeated blows to the head, said the scientists at Boston University’s CTE Center.
This new finding of less white matter in the brain was independent of whether the soccer players had suffered from CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy), a progressive neurodegenerative disease common in contact athletes.
Many ex-contact athletes experience thinking problems and impulsive behavior in the absence of CTE or when CTE is very mild. This new study suggests that another type of brain damage — which can occur earlier than CTE — may cause some of these symptoms.
“Damage to white matter may explain why soccer players are more likely to develop cognitive and behavioral problems later in life, even without CTE,” said study author Thor Stein, a neuropathologist at the VA Boston Healthcare System and an assistant professor of pathology and laboratory medicine at Boston University’s Chobanian & Avedisian School of Medicine.
Researchers examined the brains of 205 dead American football players donated to the Veterans Affairs-Boston University-Concussion Legacy Foundation Brain Bank.
The scientists measured levels of myelin, a white matter component that covers, protects and speeds up connections in the brain.
The researchers then surveyed family members about measures of cognition and impulsivity and compared how career length and age at which football began playing was related to myelin levels and how myelin levels were related to cognition and impulsivity.
In addition to more years of football playing, the researchers found that starting tackle football at a younger age was also associated with greater white matter loss, independent of career length.
“These results suggest that existing tests that measure white matter injury throughout life, including imaging and blood tests, may help clarify possible causes of behavioral and cognition changes in ex-contact athletes,” said co-author Michael Alosco , Associate Professor of Neurology.
“We can also use these tests to better understand how repeated hits to the head in football and other sports lead to long-term white matter injuries,” Alosco added.
The researchers hope these results will help support the idea that more needs to be done to protect the brains of athletes, especially children, from repeated blows to the head.