Just how dangerous is football? And how exactly do tackles and blows to the head affect a player’s brain?
While there are no definitive answers to these questions just yet, a new brain-scan study revealed subtle differences between the brains of college students who play football (especially the ones who have experienced concussions) and those who don’t.
Published in The Journal of the American Medical Association, the research revolved mostly around the players of the Division 1 football team of the University of Tulsa.
There were actually three groups of participants. One group consisted of 25 players who have received a concussion diagnosis at least once before. Twenty-five players who have no history of concussions made up the second group. For the third group, the scientists gathered 25 healthy men of about the same age as the players but without any football experience.
Brain scans were carried out on all participants using a state-of-the-art MRI machine capable of picking up slight size or shape differences in parts of the brain.
The most notable difference recorded was in hippocampal volume. Compared to the nonplayers, the football players had less volume in their hippocampus.
The size difference was more pronounced among players who had previously suffered from a concussion, with their hippocampal volume 25 percent smaller than those of the nonplayers.
Among players who have not once had a concussion diagnosis, hippocampal volume was 16 percent smaller.
Playing time, or years on the football field, seems to factor in as well. Based on the scans, those who have played longer tend to have smaller hippocampal volume. They also posted slower reaction times in the cognitive and coordination tests.
While the study doesn’t establish that playing football shrinks one’s hippocampal volume, it encourages further research into how the brain changes over time for football players and will ultimately help uncover the specific risks of roughing it out on the field.
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