Former NFL Players Have Altered Brain Development

Former National Football League (NFL) players who began playing tackle football before they were 12 years old were at a higher risk of altered brain development than players who started football later in life, according to research published in the_Journal of Neurotrauma._ It's the first study to find a connection between early exposure to repeated head trauma and brain changes later in life.

Boston University School of Medicine and Brigham and Women's Hospital researchers examined 40 former NFL players, ages 40 to 65, all of whom had more than 12 years of organized football experience. That included at least two years in the NFL.  Half of them began playing before the age of 12 and the other half began at age 12 or later. The number of concussions among the players in both groups was relatively the same and all had previously experienced at least six months of memory or cognitive problems.

To examine their brain development, the players underwent diffusor tensor imaging (DTI). This type of magnetic resonance imaging showcases the movement of water molecules along white matter tracts, which act as the super-highways within the brain for transmitting commands and information. Players who began football before the age of 12 were more likely to have visible changes in the white matter tracts in the largest structure of the brain called the corpus callosum.

Previous research has determined that a critical period of brain development occurs between ages 10 to 12, and that during this time the brain is more vulnerable to injury. Researchers said this critical development may be disrupted by repeated head traumas and injuries, such as what occurs during tackle football.

However, the study size--only 40 participants--is small. Also, the research does not confirm a cause and effect relationship, merely a possible connection. More research is needed to better understand the extent of any link between playing tackle football as a child and the effect on brain devleopment.

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