High School Football May Lead to Brain Changes

Blair's Daymon Anderson gets tackled by the Whitman offense after making an interception during the last regular season game on Friday, November 7, 2014. Blair defeated Whitman 41-0 and earned a spot in the playoffs.
Photo: Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post

In the wake of recent revelations about the link between professional football, concussions, and all sorts of devastating health issues, those of us who enjoy football but have a conscience are trying to figure out exactly how worried to be. Is this a problem restricted just to football at the highest level, where you have supernaturally agile 260-pound linebackers smashing into each other at full speed? Or are players at lower levels also putting themselves at risk? New research offers some preliminary evidence that even at the high-school level, playing football can be linked to potentially damaging changes in brain structure.

For the study, presented at the Radiological Society of North America, researchers used a telemetry gadget to measure the collision forces experienced by 24 high-school-football players between the ages of 16 and 18 over the course of a season. Based on this data, they divided the players into “heavy hitters” and “light hitters.”

The researchers then examined fractional anisotropy in the players’ brains, a measure of how water moves along axons in the brain. Generally speaking, water moves in a more uniform manner in healthy brain matter. “When water movement is more random,” the study’s press release explains, “fractional anisotropy values decrease, suggesting microstructural abnormalities.” Among heavy hitters, the researchers found, there were “significant areas of decreased FA post-season in specific areas of the brain, including the splenium of the corpus callosum and deep white matter tracts.”

Since none of the players in the study was concussed during the season, this could suggest that even “minor” collisions at a relatively low level of play lead to meaningful changes in the brain. “Similar brain MRI changes have been previously associated with mild traumatic brain injury,” said lead researcher Dr. Christopher T. Whitlow of Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center. “However, it is unclear whether or not these effects will be associated with any negative long-term consequences.”

So while this isn’t conclusive evidence, it’s certainly at the very least a chalk mark for the “we should be more worried” side of the ledger.