Brain changes found in small study of former NFL players

January 7, 2013 by Carina Storrs, Healthday Reporter
Brain changes found in small study of former NFL players
White matter damage could be at the root of mental deficits among retired players, researcher says.

(HealthDay)—In a small study of former NFL players, about one quarter were found to have "mild cognitive impairment," or problems with thinking and memory, a rate slightly higher than expected in the general population.

Thirty-four ex-NFL players took part in the study that looked at their mental function, and and compared them with those of men who did not play professional or college football. The most common deficits seen were difficulties finding words and poor .

Twenty players had no symptoms of impairment. One such player was Daryl Johnston, who played 11 seasons as fullback for the Dallas Cowboys. During his accomplished career as an offensive blocker, Johnston took countless hits to the head. After he retired in 2000, he wanted to be proactive about his , he told university staff.

All but two of the ex-players had experienced at least one concussion, and the average number of concussions was four. The players were between 41 and 79 years old.

The study was published online Jan. 7 in the JAMA Neurology.

The current study provides clues into the that could lead to these deficits among NFL athletes, and why they show up so many years after the head injury, said study author Dr. John Hart Jr., medical science director of the Center for BrainHealth at the University of Texas at Dallas.

Hart and his colleagues did advanced MRI-based imaging on 26 of the retired NFL players along with 26 of the other participants, and found that former players had more damage to their brain's white matter. White matter lies on the inside of the brain and connects different regions, Hart explained.

"The damage can occur from because the brain is shaken or twisted, and that stretches the white matter," Hart said.

An expert on sports is familiar with the findings.

"The most important finding is that [the researchers] were able to find the correlation between white matter changes and cognitive deficits," said Kevin Guskiewicz, founding director of the Center for the Study of Retired Athletes at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

The imaging tests also revealed differences in blood flow to certain areas of the brain among the athletes who had cognitive impairments, with regions involved in word finding associated with increased blood flow and regions linked to naming and verbal memory associated with drops in blood flow.

The fact that some areas are getting more blood than expected suggests that there is active damage going on in these areas, and that they are trying to compensate with more blood flow, Hart said. If the damage had already been done, or if it was associated with normal aging, you would expect to see only drops in , he added.

Hart said he hopes that these imaging tests will prove useful for diagnosing athletes with cognitive impairments, although he pointed out that the tests used in the current study were only for research purposes.

Guskiewicz said there could be a real-world benefit.

"Seeing changes early, at age 45 or 50, might allow us to intervene through cognitive rehabilitation or some sort of medication," Guskiewicz said. "Often when these things are diagnosed, it is too late."

The new study also found that four players had fixed cognitive impairment, which had probably not changed since their head injury, and two had dementia, which was a rate similar to the general population. In all, eight players were diagnosed with depression, and three of those also had cognitive deficits.

The fact that many of the players in the study did not go on to develop any kind of deficit suggests that there are other factors involved, such as environmental or genetic factors, Hart said.

The current study did not find a relationship between the number of concussions that a player experienced and whether they went on to develop a cognitive impairment.

Age definitely contributed to mental shortcomings, Hart said. While the average age of former players with a was 67, players without an impairment and healthy control participants were 55 and 60 years old on average.

"With better equipment and resting people right after an injury, it may be that when guys nowadays age, [these impairments] won't be present," said Guskiewicz, who is a member of the NFL head, neck and spine committee.

Ex-Cowboy Johnston is now working with the Center for BrainHealth to recruit other former to get evaluated, UT Dallas staff said.

Explore further: Study of retired NFL players finds evidence of brain damage

More information: You can find more about cognitive impairment at the U.S. National Institute on Aging.

Related Stories

Study of retired NFL players finds evidence of brain damage

June 29, 2012
(HealthDay) -- Tests performed on a group of retired NFL players revealed that more than 40 percent suffered from problems such as depression and dementia, adding to a growing pile of evidence that repeated sports-related ...

Retired NFL players at higher risk for mild cognitive impairment

July 18, 2011
Retired NFL football players are at higher risk for mild cognitive impairment, which can be a precursor to Alzheimer's disease, a Loyola University Health System study has found.

Can playing soccer lead to brain damage?

November 13, 2012
(HealthDay)—Soccer is an extremely popular team sport, and one of the few that doesn't require any protective head gear. But, a small study of professional soccer players from Germany suggests that even in players without ...

Routine head hits in school sports may cause brain injury

November 14, 2011
The brain scans of high school football and hockey players showed subtle injury -- even if they did not suffer a concussion – after taking routine hits to the head during the normal course of play, according to a University ...

Former football players prone to late-life health problems, study finds

November 9, 2011
Football players experience repeated head trauma throughout their careers, which results in short and long-term effects to their cognitive function, physical and mental health. University of Missouri researchers are investigating ...

Recommended for you

Research reveals atomic-level changes in ALS-linked protein

January 18, 2018
For the first time, researchers have described atom-by-atom changes in a family of proteins linked to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a group of brain disorders known as frontotemporal dementia and degenerative diseases ...

Fragile X finding shows normal neurons that interact poorly

January 18, 2018
Neurons in mice afflicted with the genetic defect that causes Fragile X syndrome (FXS) appear similar to those in healthy mice, but these neurons fail to interact normally, resulting in the long-known cognitive impairments, ...

How your brain remembers what you had for dinner last night

January 17, 2018
Confirming earlier computational models, researchers at University of California San Diego and UC San Diego School of Medicine, with colleagues in Arizona and Louisiana, report that episodic memories are encoded in the hippocampus ...

Recording a thought's fleeting trip through the brain

January 17, 2018
University of California, Berkeley neuroscientists have tracked the progress of a thought through the brain, showing clearly how the prefrontal cortex at the front of the brain coordinates activity to help us act in response ...

Midbrain 'start neurons' control whether we walk or run

January 17, 2018
Locomotion comprises the most fundamental movements we perform. It is a complex sequence from initiating the first step, to stopping when we reach our goal. At the same time, locomotion is executed at different speeds to ...

Miles Davis is not Mozart: The brains of jazz and classical pianists work differently

January 16, 2018
Keith Jarret, world-famous jazz pianist, once answered in an interview when asked if he would ever be interested in doing a concert where he would play both jazz and classical music: "No, that's hilarious. [...] It's like ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.