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More Evidence Emerges of the Danger That Playing Football Poses to Young Kids’ Brains

A new study confirms the damage of multiple hits to head, even if the player never experiences a concussion.

By Nathan Collins


(Photo: Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)

Following years of pretty much ignoring the problem, the National Football League is finally starting to take concussions seriously—just in time for a new study that hints repeatedly slamming into people can do some serious damage to young brains even if those hits never actually result in a concussion.

“American football has a high rate of traumatic brain injury (TBI) among contact team sports in the United States,” a team led by the University of California–San Diego’s Naeim Bahrami and Wake Forest University’s Christopher Whitlow writes in Radiology. But even without a full-blown concussion, studies suggest repetitive blows to the head can cause cognitive problems, likely through microscopic damage to the brain’s white matter, the bundles of neuron arms called axons that transmit electrical signals across the brain.

This research is just the latest blow to sport, which continues to see youth participation rates plummet.

Still, it hasn’t been entirely clear what such damage would do to the millions of young kids who play football without ever getting a concussion. To find out, the research team focused on 25 boys between the ages of eight and 13 who’d been outfitted with special helmets that record impacts to the head. (The team omitted data on several other boys who’d had a concussion in order to focus on the effects of relatively mild impacts.) The team tracked those boys and the knocks to their heads, then compared MRI brain scans taken before and after the season to see how the cumulative effect of a season’s worth of impacts affected their brains’ white matter.

Impacts seemed to have the most effect on an area called the inferior fronto-orbital fasciculus, one of the major bundles of axons connecting the frontal lobe to other parts of the brain. While there was a wide variety of white matter change to that area in the boys—anywhere from a 6 percent decline to about an 8 percent increase—the key finding is this: The more hits the boys took, and the harder those hits were, the less growth there was in the inferior fronto-orbital fasciculus, even though none of them had experienced a concussion.

There are a number of limitations, the authors write, among them the small sample size of the study and the fact that the study focused exclusively on boys playing one sport for just one season. Still, this research is just another blow to the sport of football, which continues to see youth participation rates plummet.