Brain differences observed in contacts sport athletes

Written by Hannah Wilson

Researchers from St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto (ON, Canada) have used a combination of MRI techniques to perform preseason brain scans on 65 varsity athletes in a study published in Frontiers in Neurology. The athletes were split into three groups to represent their participation in non-contact, contact or collision sports in the hope that this study would shed light on the brain health of current athletes.
Following multivariate analysis, the collision group were observed to display elevated fractional anisotropy and reduced mean diffusivity in white matter compared with other groups. In addition, the collision group demonstrated significant reductions in functional connectivity and the NAA/Cr metabolite ratio relative to the non-contact group, while the contact group overlapped with both groups.

When injury history was considered, it was noted that athletes with prior concussions demonstrated greater alterations in fractional anisotropy and functional connectivity, which the authors suggest might indicate a potential cumulative effect of concussion history on brain physiology.

Overall, these findings suggest that increasing levels of contact in sport are related to changes in the brain; however, the authors emphasize that these changes were not reflective of impaired day-to-day functioning. No athletes in this study reported significant health problems.

This study provides valuable information on MRI markers of brain health and will be of use in future research into contact sports and concussion.

Sources: Churchill NW, Hutchinson MG, Di Battista AP, Graham SJ, Schweizer TA. Structural, functional, and metabolic brain markers differentiate collision versus contact and non-contact athletes. Frontiers Neurol. doi:10.3389/fneur.2017.00390 (2017);