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Study: Concussions, years of play related to brain differences

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

The study is the most comprehensive ever to assess the effects of football specifically on college players.concussion

College football players with and without a history of concussions have less volume in the hippocampal region of the brain that relates to memory and emotion, according to a study published Tuesday by the Journal of the American Medical Association. Moreover, the number of years of playing experience was inversely related to hippocampal volume and reaction time.

The study, conducted at The University of Tulsa (TU) in partnership with the Laureate Institute for Brain Research (LIBR), is the most comprehensive ever to assess the effects of football specifically on college players.

“Other studies have evaluated the effects on older athletes, such as retired NFL players, but no one has studied 20-year-olds until now – and the results were remarkable and surprising,” said Patrick S.F. Bellgowan, director of cognitive neuroscience for LIBR and a faculty member at TU. “Our next step is to assess what caused this difference in hippocampus size.”

“This unique finding and dataset are a reflection of the unprecedented access and collaboration provided by the Department of Athletics at The University of Tulsa” Bellgowan said. “Subsequent research aimed at understanding developmental aspects of this finding will require similarly strong commitment by local athletes, parents and high schools.”

Fifty TU football players, including 25 with a history of concussions, were assessed in real time for differences in hippocampal volume and cognitive performance. The test group included 25 education- and age-matched non-collegiate football players.

Years of clinical experience lead David Polanski, TU’s head athletic trainer and co-author of the study, to propose the hypothesis that the number of years of football-playing experience might contribute to anatomical and behavioral changes. Results showed an inverse association between hippocampal volume and reaction. Also, more years of playing football correlated with slower reaction time.

“As a premier research university and NCAA Division I school, TU is committed to studying the effect of contact sports on the brain,” Polanski said. “This research brings us one step closer to understanding the connection between contact sports and brain injury.”

The University of Tulsa will continue supporting this research in any way possible including through the athletic program, Polanski asserted. “This research shows the correlation; the next step is to determine causation so that long-term brain injury can be identified and prevented,” he said.

“One part of the Laureate Institute for Brain Research’s mission is to identify and develop treatments for risk factors, including concussion, for psychiatric disorders. The university’s Department of Athletics identifies with that mission in a very specific way: TU wants to protect its players,” Bellgowan said. “Our partnership is integral for understanding the biology of concussion that will enhance the long-term healthy of athletes of all ages.”

Read the full JAMA article 

Mona Chamberlin