A growing number of studies link contact sports-related concussions and impacts with brain injury. A new research focused on college football players, which was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) on May 14, adds to the poll of studies that suggest of risks associated with playing football.

In the new study, which examined the hippocampal volume, cognitive performance and football experience in college of study participants, Patrick Bellgowan, from the University of Tulsa in Oklahoma, and colleagues scanned the brains of 25 college football players who had at least one concussion, 25 players who do not have history of concussion and 25 men who did not engage in the sports.

The researchers then used the images from the magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans to measure the volume of certain regions in the participants' brains and observed that the volume of the hippocampus, the region of the brain involved in memory and emotions, varied among the participants.

Football players tend to have smaller hippocampus than the participants who were non-players. The hippocampuses of the athletes were smaller by up to 26 percent compared to participants who did not play football. The difference was even more pronounced when comparing the hippocampal volume of non-players and the athletes who had been diagnosed with concussion.

Bellgowan and his team also observed that the athletes who had been playing for a long time tend to have smaller hippocampuses. They also had slower reaction times based on results of the tests that evaluated their memory and reaction time.

"Among a group of collegiate football athletes, there was a significant inverse relationship of concussion and years of football played with hippocampal volume," the researchers reported. "Years of football experience also correlated with slower reaction time."

Bellgowan and Jeffrey Bazarian, from the University of Rochester Medical Center in New York who was not involved in the study, said the further studies are still needed to determine if a smaller hippocampus may have a negative effect on the athletes later on in life.

"Maybe there is something going on early on," Bazarian said. "None of these players were feeling bad but their brain structure isn't normal." 

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