Imaging reveals how playing high school football changes an athlete’s brain

Playing a single season of high school football can cause changes in the structure of an athlete’s brain, according to new research published in Neurobiology of Disease.

“It is becoming pretty clear that repetitive impacts to the head, even over a short period of time, can cause changes in the brain,” Chunlei Liu, PhD, a professor of electrical engineering and computer sciences and a member of the Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute at the University of California, Berkeley, said in a news release from the university. “This is the period when the brain is still developing, when it is not mature yet, so there are many critical biological processes going on, and it is unknown how these changes that we observe can affect how the brain matures and develops.”

Using diffusion kurtosis imaging, Liu and colleagues found that gray matter in these young athletes’ brains changed after playing one season of football. The changes correlated with how many head impacts—measured using accelerometers inside their helmets—the players experienced.

The researchers did note that, as of now, it is unclear if these changes in the brain are permanent.

“The brain microstructure of younger players is still rapidly developing, and that may counteract the alterations caused by repetitive head impacts,” Nan-Jie Gong, PhD, department of electrical engineering and computer sciences at the University of California, Berkeley, said in the same news release.

The findings did leave the authors urging caution, however. Liu noted that more information is needed, “especially given the popularity of youth football and other sports that cause impact to the brain.”