Scans of Collegiate Football Players' Brains Show Smaller Volume

Dorian Martin Health Guide
  • Over the past couple of years, a number of headlines have been published about the significant toll that concussions have taken on retired pro football players’ brains. In some ways, this news wasn’t so surprising when you watch the National Football League’s highlight reels that show absolutely brutal hits that cause a player’s head to snap back or that result in a player landing on his head.


    But what about younger players who aren’t playing at the professional level? Are they experiencing any issues with their brains? A new study out of the Laureate Institute for Brain Research in Tulsa, OK tried to determine whether participation in football at lower levels could have a lasting effect on the brain’s hippocampal region or cognitive performance.

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    First, let’s review where the hippocampus region is in the brain and its responsibilities. This region is located in medial temporal lobe that is found in the front part of the brain. The hippocampus has a “U” shape and is found in both of the brain’s hemispheres. This area of the brain is responsible for the formation of memories as well as organizing and storing them. Additionally, this part of the brain connects emotions and senses to memories.  The hippocampus also is responsible for navigation and spatial orientation, which involves the body’s posture and environment. This orientation is used for sensing direction, visualization and map-reading.


    So on to the findings from the study, which involved a total of 75 young men. One-third of the participants played college football and had a history of diagnosed concussions.  Another third also played college football but did not have a history of being diagnosed with concussions. The remaining 25 participants did not play football, but were the same age and had the same educational attainment as the football players. The researchers used high-resolution imaging to look at the participants’ brain volume. Additionally, they assessed the football players’ cognitive abilities using a computerized test.


    The imaging scans showed that the football players – even those who didn’t have a history of concussions – had a smaller hippocampal region in the brain; in fact, this area of the brain was about 25 percent smaller than the same region in the study participants who didn’t play football. Furthermore, players who had a history of concussions had smaller hippocampal regions than players who hadn’t suffered from concussions. 


    The researchers found that football players who had participated in the sport for a longer period of time often had a smaller hippocampus region than football players who had played the sport for a shorter span. The researchers’ analysis also determined that the number of years that players participated in football correlated to slower reaction time. However, the researchers didn’t find a relationship between the size of the football players’ hippocampus and their performance on tests of memory and reaction time. 


  • So what does this study mean? The researchers point out that changes in the hippocampal region seem to start earlier in football players than in men who are the same age but who haven’t played that sport. Admittedly, it could mean that this group of football players naturally have smaller hippocampal regions. Furthermore, stress can cause shrinkage of this area of the brain.

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    While the assessments didn’t show any difference in the players’ current cognitive levels, the imaging scans do raise some important questions about these football players’ future. That’s because at least in cases of dementia, the brain’s hippocampal region begins to show significant changes years before symptoms emerge.


    Therefore, even at the amateur level, it’s important for coaches and players to take proper precautions to protect the players' brains. It’s really important if you have a young friend or relative who is playing football (or wants to play this sport) to encourage them to practice safe tackling and to avoid using their heads when physically stopping an opponent. Furthermore, these young men – and their coaches -- need to take head injuries seriously and should immediately seek medical attention if any player experiences having his “bell rung.”


    Primary Sources for This Sharepost:


    Bailey, R. (ND). Hippocampus. About.com Biology.


    Singh, R., et al. (2014). Relationship of collegiate football experience and concussion with hippocampal volume and cognitive outcomes. Journal of the American Medical Association.

Published On: May 21, 2014