Youth tackle football connected to permanent brain damage, early decline

BOSTON — Playing tackle football as a child significantly raises the risk for brain damage later on in life, warns a new study from Boston University. The new study found that youth football players who continued the sport for more than 11 years were more likely to have less white matter in the brain, which could explain behavioral issues such as poor impulse control and cognitive difficulties.

A lot of health research in recent years focuses on head injuries in football and the risk of developing chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). This brain condition comes from repeated head blows and concussions which causes worsening memory loss, confusion, and other cognitive problems. Over time the condition progresses to Parkinsonism and eventually dementia. It’s not only a career-ending diagnosis—Hall of Fame center Mike Webster and one-time stars like NFL defensive back Irv Cross were forced to retire early—but also life-threatening.

Repeated blows to the head may also endanger brain health in other ways, suggests this new study. The researchers found decreases in white matter in the brain, regardless of whether you have or do not have CTE.

“Just because you aren’t diagnosed with CTE doesn’t mean there isn’t something structurally damaged in the brain,” says Thor D. Stein, a neuropathologist and associate professor of pathology and laboratory medicine at Boston University in a statement. “Damage to the white matter may help explain why football players appear more likely to develop cognitive and behavioral problems later in life, even in the absence of CTE.”

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Tackle football at a young age could be setting a player up for brain struggles later in life. (Credit: Ben Hershey on Unsplash)

White matter is important in conducting and sending nerve signals throughout the brain and spinal cord. If the brain was a computer, white matter are the cables connecting everything together. Without white matter, our cells would not have a way of communicating with each other.

“A lot of neuroscience and degenerative disease study is focused on the neurons or cells themselves, but increasingly people are recognizing that there can be damage to the connections,” explains Stein. “The cell itself might look okay, but its connection is not intact—and that was what we wanted to look at in this study.”

Brain scans of football players shed light on alarming issue

The authors studied the brains of 205 amateur and professional football players. Each person donated their brain to Boston University for medical research after their death. About 75.9% of former players had some type of brain damage. Most, but not all, showed signs of CTE.

To study the connection between head trauma and white matter, Stein and his team divided the brains into two groups. The first group conducted a pathological exam on the brain, dissecting and studying white matter tissue samples. The second group examined past medical records and interviewed family members about neurological symptoms.

In the first group studying the white matter, researchers investigated myelin. This insulating layer wraps around neurons to strengthen their connectivity—like how plastic is cased around an insulated wire. They tested the levels of two myelin proteins, myelin-associated glycoprotein and proteolipid protein 1. Because myelin gives white matter its color, measuring the levels can give a good estimate of less efficient connections between brain cells.

The researchers also took a look at the frontal lobe, the brain area involved in executive functions such as planning, self-control, and memory. Because it’s at the front of the head, it’s also the most vulnerable to football hits and concussions.

The more years someone played football, the fewer myelin proteins a person had compared to those with shorter careers. This suggests a decrease in white matter in their brains. Former athletes who played tackle football at an earlier age also showed low proteolipid protein 1 levels, which indicates that young, developing brains are especially vulnerable to brain damage from football.

Former players with decreased white matter in the brain most likely had trouble controlling their emotions and planning their days. “In our study, we found that, in those over 50 years of age, lower measures of white matter were associated with an impaired ability to perform normal activities of daily living, such as paying bills, shopping, and cooking, as well as with more impulsive behavior,” says Stein.

The findings help in better understanding the consequences of repeated hits to the head from contact sports and the effects the long-term injury has on white matter. It also raises the alarm on when kids should start playing tackle football and whether any safety measures can be taken to prevent brain damage. Stein says “if you can just shrink those cumulative years of play down a little bit, you can make a really big impact on brain health. This study is more evidence of that.”

The study is published in Brain Communications.

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About the Author

Jocelyn Solis-Moreira

Jocelyn is a New York-based science journalist whose work has appeared in Discover Magazine, Health, and Live Science, among other publications. She holds a Master’s of Science in Psychology with a concentration in behavioral neuroscience and a Bachelor’s of Science in integrative neuroscience from Binghamton University. Jocelyn has reported on several medical and science topics ranging from coronavirus news to the latest findings in women’s health.

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