It’s Not Just Concussions That Can Cause Cognitive Damage in Athletes

A new study suggests that even without getting a concussion, taking hits to the head still has the potential to affect a person’s learning and memory abilities.

Indiana University School of Medicine came to this conclusion after observing college athletes at Dartmouth College. They observed athletes in full-contact sports such as ice hockey and football as well as athletes in non-contact sports like track and crew. Out of the 80 concussion-free varsity football and ice hockey players, and the 79 non-contact sport athletes, those playing the contact sports were twice as likely than the other group to fall into a subgroup of low-performing athletes.

Verbal learning and memory tests were given to the athletes at the beginning of the season and at the end of the season. In both group, a subset of athletes performed more than 1.5% standard deviations below expected at the end of the season: 20% of the contact players, compared with 11% of the non-contact players.

Through the season, researchers monitored the contact players through acceleration-time monitors place on the inside of their helmets, which recorded how hard and how often each player was hit. The results found that some athletes who got hit really hard had suffered a concussion, and others who were hit moderately hard, and some who were hit really hard who did not get diagnosed with a concussion. Researchers then studied the non-contact athletes with the same technology.

During the preseason test, there was not a significant difference between the test scores of the contact and non-contact players. Research suggests the vast difference between the test scores post-season raises question of whether any previous damage could be recovered during the time athletes are not playing.

“Also of note was the fact that among those performing worse on cognition, the amount of change in white matter composition was larger. White matter is a nerve tissue in the brain associated with sending communications and linking memory centers of the brain.”

The study concluded that there are difference that are linked to how hard and how often people are hit in the head that determines their cognitive function. What they do not know is how long those differences last and whether or not there is a permanent kind of effect from that.

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Source: US News