New research shows that playing football significantly affects brain development among children. What is also quite troubling is that there are marked effects even when a child only played the game for one single season of play.
The study, which was first published in the Radiology journal, observed 25 young football players whose age range from 8 to 13. The researchers, headed by Christopher T. Whitlow, associate professor and chief of neuroradiology at Wake Forest School of Medicine, used the Head Impact Telemetry System to document and evaluate head impact data.
The study discovered that cumulative hits to the head led to microstructural changes to the brain's white matter. This is the part of the brain that is composed of millions of nerve fibers called axons, which serve as connectors of its various regions.
In a healthy white matter, there are uniform movements of water molecules. On the other hand, cumulative head impacts purportedly cause random movement of these molecules, leading to a quantified decrease in fractional anisotropy (FA) value. This phenomenon is said to be associated with brain abnormalities.
"We found that these young players who experienced more cumulative head impact exposure had more changes in brain white matter, specifically decreased FA, in specific parts of the brain," Whitlow said. "These decreases in FA caught our attention, because similar changes in FA have been reported in the setting of mild TBI."
The study also served to underscore one other startling finding. The change to the white matter transpired even when the head impact did not result to an actual injury. This is a critical aspect to Whitlow and his team's research as previous studies only focused on football players who have suffered concussions while playing.
The researchers were not able to determine whether the changes to the white matter of the young football players' brains are permanent. The study also did not indicate actual health impacts or effects to brain or physical functions of the players except the part about brain abnormalities. The researchers have called for additional study to resolve these issues; however, related studies cite possible lasting effects to many aspects of brain function such as cognition, personality and behavior.
Despite the uncertainty with respect to the long-term impact of white matter change to the child's brain development, it has given some parents pause.
"Football's important to us, but there are other things out there that are more important," Greg DeLong, former NFL player whose 12-year-old son is also playing football, said.
DeLong's apprehension could resonate to the parents of more than three million children who participate in football programs in the United States.