Former NFL Players May Have Altered Brain Development

The National Football League (NFL) officially kicked off the 2015 regular season on September 10, and research on former players revealed a rather damaging outcome associated with the game (besides the Deflategate controversy, that is).

The National Football League (NFL) officially kicked off the 2015 regular season on September 10, and research on former players revealed a rather damaging outcome associated with the game (besides the Deflategate controversy, that is).

Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) is a progressive degenerative disease that affects the brains of many athletes. Researchers from Boston University School of Medicine (BUSM) and Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH) examined whether early exposure to repetitive head impacts, from playing tackle football, contributed to CTE or structural brain changes later down the line.

Published in the Journal of Neurotrauma, the study included 40 former NFL players from ages 40 to 65. Each player had more than 12 years of organized football experience, with at least two of those years being in the NFL. Half of them began playing tackle football before the age of 12 and the other half started after that point. Concussion history was similar between the groups and all participants had memory and thinking problems for at least six months.

“To examine brain development in these players, we used an advanced technique called diffusor tensor imaging (DTI), a type of magnetic resonance imaging that specifically looks at the movement of water molecules along white matter tracts, which are the super-highways within the brain for relaying commands and information,” co-author Inga Koerte, MD, a professor of neurobiological research, explained in a news release.

As it turns out, early exposure to head impacts did appear to play a role in altered brain development later in life. The players who began playing football before the age of 12 “were more likely to have alterations of the white matter tracts of the corpus callosum, the largest structure of the brain that connects the two cerebral hemispheres,” the team confirmed. This evidence adds to previous research suggesting that there is a “critical window” from ages 10 to 12 for brain development — a time where injury could also be more likely.

The authors were careful to clarify that the findings do not mean that altered brain development is a direct result of earlier exposure to football. However, the findings do suggest an association between earlier brain trauma and abnormal brain imaging patterns at an older age.

“While this study adds to the growing concern that exposing children to repetitive hits to the head in tackle football may have long-lasting consequences, there are likely other contributing factors that contribute to overall risk for CTE,” one of the lead researchers Robert Stern, PhD, concluded.