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Deviant brain metabolism found in high school football players


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New research into the effects of repeated head impacts on high school football players has shown changes in brain chemistry and metabolism even in players who have not been diagnosed with concussions and suggest the brain may not fully heal during the offseason.

New research into the effects of repeated head impacts on high school football players has shown changes in brain chemistry and metabolism even in players who have not been diagnosed with concussions and suggest the brain may not fully heal during the offseason.

Researchers used a medical-imaging technique called proton magnetic resonance spectroscopy (1H MRS) to study the brains of 25 high school football players and those of non-contact-sports controls before, during and after the regular season.

"We are seeing damage not just to neurons, but also to the vasculature and glial cells in the brain," said Eric Nauman, a professor of mechanical engineering, basic medical sciences and biomedical engineering. "I was particularly disturbed that when you get to the offseason - we are looking somewhere between two and five months after the season has ended - the majority of players are still showing that they had not fully recovered."

Findings, which suggest the cumulative effects of injuries pose potential health dangers for players not diagnosed with concussion, are detailed in five research papers published in May in the journal Developmental Neuropsychology.

The 1H MRS data provide details about the blood flow, metabolism, and chemistry of neurons and glial cells important for brain function. The data also revealed a "hypermetabolic response" in the brains of football players during the preseason, as though trying to heal connections impaired from the previous season.

"We found that in the preseason for the football players in our study, one part of the brain would be associating with about 100 other regions, which is much higher than the controls," said Thomas Talavage, a professor of electrical and computer engineering and biomedical engineering and co-director of the Purdue MRI Facility. "The brain is pretty amazing at covering up a lot of changes. Some of these kids have no outward symptoms, but we can see their brains have rewired themselves to skip around the parts that are affected."

One of the research papers, in work led by former doctoral student Victoria N. Poole, showed that knowing a player's history of specific types of hits to the head makes it possible to accurately predict "deviant brain metabolism." Findings suggest that sub-concussive blows can produce biochemical changes and potentially lead to neurological problems, showing a correlation between players taking the heaviest hits and brain chemistry changes. Data showed that the neurons in the motor cortex region in the brains of football players produced about 50 percent less of the neurotransmitter glutamine compared to controls.

"We are finding that the more hits you take the more you change your brain chemistry, the more you change your brain's ability to move blood to the right locations," Nauman said.

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