A Study Suggests Concussions Cause Structural Changes to the Brain

Brain Injury
Sports Concussions

By Zac Pingle, Staff Writer

A recent study that used MRI-Diffusion techniques to monitor the brains of several athletes revealed that concussions changed the structure of white matter in the brain. This provides evidence that sports-related concussions could have long term effects on the brain, and that athletes may need longer periods of medical leave after a concussion than previously assumed.

Details of the Study

The study used a Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI),  machine to track the flow of water molecules within the brain. This would give an image of the brain’s “skeleton” so to speak.

The observations were derived from a group of 17 high school and college athletes who had suffered concussions in a sports-related incident. The observations taken from students who had suffered concussions were then compared to 18 students who had never suffered from a concussion. These observations were taken at 24 hours after the concussion, then eight days after the concussion, and then again at six months after a concussion. The researchers found that those who had suffered a concussion had microstructural damage still present in the white matter of their brains, even after six months of their injury when the patients believed they had completely recovered.

To put the concept into simpler terms; think of your brain as a very complicated silly straw. Water moves throughout this silly straw, which represents the neurons and microfibers of brain’s white matter. Concussions can put dents in this straw, thus causing water to be constricted in certain areas. The study revealed that these “dents” in the straw still remain even after the symptoms of a concussion seem to stop in a patient.

What do the Results of the Study Mean for Patients?

White matter connects different parts of the brain and allows the brain to communicate to the body. It is responsible for functions that the body is not self aware of, like temperature regulation and heart beats. Damaging white matter may lead to personality changes and other cognitive complications.

“Athletes may still experience long-term brain changes even after they feel they have recovered from the injury.” said Melissa Lancaster, PhD, of the Medical College of Wisconsin in Milwaukee. “Additional research is needed to determine how these changes relate to long-term outcomes.”

This study is not the first one to see a correlation between sports-related concussions and long-term brain changes. Another study, conducted at the Princeton Neuroscience Institute, showed that concussions altered brain structure for at least two months after the initial impact. This study was conducted under similar conditions as the study mentioned earlier.

It is not conclusive as to what these changes in brain structure could mean for patients long-term. However, there exists strong evidence that concussions sustained in contact sports do have an impact on brain structure over a long period of time.

Read more about the dangers of concussions in youth sports:

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