One Season of Football and the Developing Brain

Young Brains and Football


Read Time: [5-6 minutes]


2016 continues to be a troublesome year for football as science reveals more information about the effects of repetitive head contact on the brain. It’s pretty well established that concussions can create lasting changes in the structure of the brain, in recent years scientists have sought to study if contact sports can change the brain even without concussion.

Two studies presented this year sought to answer that question, and it looks like football without concussions can still affect a young and developing brain. Here are some links to studies below:

Brain Changes seen in youth football players without concussion

Head impact lead to brain changes in high school football players

Both of these studies had a similar design, but they were performed on different age groups. One was performed on players between the ages of 8-13, the other was performed on high school players. Players were given special helmets to quantify how much head impact they were receiving in practices and in games. The players were also scanned with a special form of MRI called diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) before the season and after the season to see if there were any changes in the structure of the brain after the season.

About DTI

DTI helps to measure structural damage to the brain by helping doctors look at a part of a neuron called an axon. Axons are like power lines of a nerve cell. Whenever a neuron fires, it transmits an electrical signal down these wires so that it can pass the message along to the next neuron in the chain. DTI measures the continuous movement of water through these “wires”.

The resulting image is actually something quite beautiful and remarkable to see. Almost like something you can hang in an art exhibition as you can see below:


Image Credit: Google Creative Commons

DTI Image of the axons in the brain. Image Credit: Google Creative Commons


One of the things that has been well established is that concussions can damage a lot of the axons in the brain through a process called axonal shearing. It’s basically like a hurricane coming in and knocking down your town’s power lines.


Image credit to Artery Studios via Pineterest

Image credit to Artery Studios via Pineterest


When these axons get damaged, that beautiful DTI image that you saw before hand will start to show some gaps like you see below:

DTI Normal vs Abnormal

Back to Football and Young Brains

So we know that concussions definitely cause axonal injury, but what about all those hits to the head that happen without a concussion? Could they also damage these axons?

According to these 2 recent studies, a year of youth or high school football can make observable changes in the structure of the brain.

The studies also showed that the players who had impacts that were more frequent or more forceful correlated with greater signs of damage.

In high school athletes, the researchers also measured functional changes in the brain and showed that players with greater or more frequent impact showed decreased delta wave activity which is a characteristic sign of brain injury.

So far, not so good.

Imaging Is Not A Death Sentence

So before we draw any conclusions, let’s talk about 2 things.

While we know that these DTI findings are related to concussion and head impact diagnosis, we have no idea if this means anything for the health and quality of life of the patient in the future.

Findings on DTI are NOT predictive of how impaired a patient is, nor does it predict if a patient will have future brain damage or post concussion syndrome. In fact, findings on DTI don’t predict all that much at this point in time.

Obviously we prefer that brains don’t suffer any damage at all, but we do know this:

Most people who suffer head impact and concussions will go on to live normal healthy lives.

Now it’s up to science to figure out how much can someone’s brain take, and how do we take care of these people who are at risk for future brain disease.

Email Dr. Chung


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