Study finds marked changes in brains of young ath­letes after con­cus­sions

The Hamilton Spectator - - SPORTS - CAS­SAN­DRA SZKLARSKI

TORONTO — Look­ing back now, vol­ley­ball player Ju­lia Hamer ad­mits she feels like an “id­iot” for not rec­og­niz­ing signs of a con­cus­sion.

This was back when she was play­ing for the ju­nior na­tional team at age 19, and was smacked in the head by a vol­ley­ball.

It was the sec­ond blow in six weeks, the first com­ing from a dive into the bleach­ers that put her out of the game for three weeks.

After that first in­jury — in which she was di­ag­nosed with a con­cus­sion — she suf­fered dizzi­ness, con­fu­sion, chronic mi­graines and lost her sense of taste.

The sec­ond blow seemed mild by com­par­i­son, so she only took a few hours off be­fore re­turn­ing to the court, de­spite im­me­di­ate nau­sea and dizzi­ness. “I was a lit­tle bit wor­ried but at the same time I thought, ‘Oh, I’m prob­a­bly fine. I couldn’t have got a con­cus­sion from that, it was just a hit in the head,’” Hamer re­mem­bers telling her­self.

Five years later, the mi­graines per­sist, her sense of smell hasn’t fully re­turned and she’s not en­tirely sure she’s re­gained her full vis­ual acu­ity.

A new study pub­lished Thurs­day in the Jour­nal of Neu­ro­trauma sug­gests con­cus­sions could be linked to long-term phys­i­cal changes in the brain.

Re­searchers from St. Michael’s Hos­pi­tal in Toronto used ad­vanced Mag­netic Res­o­nance Imag­ing (MRI) to ex­am­ine the brains of 43 male and fe­male univer­sity ath­letes — 21 with a his­tory of con­cus­sion and 22 with­out.

The study found marked dif­fer­ences in the brains of ath­letes with prior con­cus­sions, in­clud­ing less blood flow to cer­tain areas and smaller frontal lobes — the part of the brain re­spon­si­ble for de­ci­sion-mak­ing and im­pulse con­trol.

Ath­letes with a his­tory of con­cus­sions had brain vol­ume that was 10 to 20 per cent less than the ath­letes who hadn’t suf­fered a con­cus­sion.

The ath­letes who had suf­fered a con­cus­sion also had 25 to 35 per cent less blood flow to some areas of the brain, es­pe­cially the frontal lobes.

“This is the first time to our knowl­edge that peo­ple have looked at changes in brain vol­ume, in blood flow, in white mat­ter all within a sin­gle group of ath­letes,” says lead author Nathan Churchill, a post-doc­toral fel­low in St. Michael’s neu­ro­science re­search pro­gram. “So we’re get­ting sort of a re­ally com­pre­hen­sive pic­ture of what’s go­ing on after con­cus­sion.”

The study points to pos­si­ble long-term health con­se­quences, in­clud­ing the risk of re-in­jury, de­pres­sion and cog­ni­tive im­pair­ments. And while Churchill says most other stud­ies have fo­cused on a sin­gle high-risk sport, this one looked at both contact and non-contact sports in­clud­ing bas­ket­ball, soc­cer and vol­ley­ball, and found con­sis­tent brain dif­fer­ences across the board.

About a year-and-a-half after her sec­ond in­jury, Hamer suf­fered a mild con­cus­sion when she banged her head again — this time by col­lid­ing with her vol­ley­ball part­ner.

She won­ders now if she should have taken more time off after that first blow to the head.

The find­ings raise ques­tions about how long a suit­able re­cov­ery pe­riod should be.

Churchill says it’s clear that con­cus­sions are not a short-term in­jury, even if symp­toms like nau­sea, dizzi­ness, and headaches might only last about a week. He notes that the ath­letes stud­ied had suf­fered in­juries any­where from six months to 10 years ear­lier.


Five years later, vol­ley­ball player Ju­lia Hamer still suf­fers mi­graines.

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