This Is What Just One Season of Football Does to a Child’s Brain

Image Source: Thinkstock
Image Source: Thinkstock

New research shows that sustaining minor hits in just one season of youth football is enough to cause changes in young players’ brains, even if the impact doesn’t cause a concussion. The study is just the latest in a long string of alarming research on the topic, giving parents everywhere pause before allowing their children to play football. And with good reason.

When my son was 8 years old, he begged his dad and me to let him play football. But like many parents, I had my concerns. I worried not just about the evidence pointing to the long-term risks of head injuries, but also the underlying brutality of the sport.

My son cried that I was “killing his dream” because all he wanted to do was play football in the NFL and if he didn’t start practicing now, he’d never have a chance at making it. He was downright apoplectic and after careful consideration, my husband and I relented and signed him up for tackle football. We rationalized that the risks of injuries of any kind were relatively small at such a young age, our son would scratch the football itch and move on, and we wouldn’t be dream killers.

Ultimately, our son decided before the season even started that football wasn’t for him and took up baseball instead. We’ve never looked back, and I couldn’t be happier — or more relieved.

Despite the fact that I’ve been a football fan since my dad took first me to a Wisconsin Badger game as a little girl, the idea of my son playing football makes me more than a little uneasy. Evidence about the long-term risks of head injuries commonly sustained in the sport is widespread and well-known. By now, we’ve all read about the professional players who’ve committed suicide as a result of CTE caused by years of repeated concussions. We’ve heard about the lawsuits and the new concussion protocols at both the college and professional level. But little has been said about the risks in children. They’re so little, after all, we think to ourselves. How hard could they tackles really be? Surely it can’t be that risky at such a young an age?

Or can it?

According to this new research, it clearly is that risky. The study, which was published in the medical journal Radiology this month, suggests that the cumulative effects of minor head impact — those that aren’t hard enough to cause a concussion — might still lead to detrimental brain changes in children.

Most of the research to date has focused on the long-term trauma caused by CTE, or chronic traumatic encephalopathy, but in this study researchers focused instead on studying the differences in the brain before and after a football season. All of the study participants were boys, between the ages of 8 and 13, and none had a concussion diagnosis during the study period. Researchers used special MRI imaging technology to look at the players’ fractional anisotropy (FA). A higher FA signals healthy white matter and regular water movement in the brain, while a lower FA shows lower water movement and disruptions in the brain.

In the end, study authors found that the more a player was exposed to hard hits and forceful impact during the football season, the more likely they had a lower FA score, which has been associated with brain abnormalities.

“These changes had a strong relationship with the amount of exposure,” said study co-author Dr. Christopher Whitlow, chief of neuroradiology at Wake Forest School of Medicine in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

While Whitlow and his fellow researchers admit that the study is small and more research is still needed, its findings are nothing short of eye-opening. The hope, they say, is that the study will be helpful in guiding further research to understand the effects of football on the brain in coming years.

“When you play football, there’s going to be some trauma to the brain whether it’s [diagnosed or not],” noted Dr. Max Wiznitzer, a pediatric neurologist in the Neurologic Institute at University Hospitals Rainbow Babies and Children’s Hospital, to ABC News. “We don’t know if [these changes] go away the following year.”

Although my own son has moved on from his dreams of playing football in the NFL (these days, it’s all about playing for his beloved Chicago Cubs), every once in a while, he’ll ask if he can try football again. But after reading this study’s findings, I’ll feel a lot more comfortable about being a “dream killer.”

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