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Children Who Play Contact Sports are at Greater Risk of Altered Brain Development

New research has confirmed the belief that there is a ‘critical window’ during the brain development of children. This new study, carried out by researchers at Boston University School of Medicine and Brigham Women’s Hospital, was based on former NFL players who began their football careers before the age of 12, and showed that there is a link between repetitive head impacts during childhood, and changes to the brain’s structure in later life.
Led by Dr. Robert Stern, the study set out to discover the implications and long-term dangers associated with the game. It’s not the first study of its type, but it added weight to previous studies and provided further evidence to suggest that there is a critical period in the brain development of children. Researchers believe that there is a time when the developing brain may be particularly susceptible to injuries, and that this window comes between the ages of 10-12 years.
The study examined the brains of 40 former NFL players, 50% of whom had started the game before they were 12, with the other 50% of players not starting contact football until they were 12 years of age or older. Using advanced magnetic resonance imaging, the scientists were able to look at the movements of water molecules within areas of the brain that are known to relay commands and information. Their results showed that those players who started football before they were 12, were more likely to experience changes in the structure that connects the two cerebral hemispheres. One of the team, Julie Stamm, explained that the development process of the brain may be disrupted if it suffers repeated head impacts, and that this could lead to lasting changes within the structure of the brain.
The team did acknowledge that these findings were based on a very small study, and that the results do not confirm that there is a cause and effect relationship between the age someone starts playing contact sports and changes in the brain, only that there is an association. However, their findings do support other research projects that showed that former football players who took up the sport prior to adolescence are more likely to experience problems in later years with reasoning, planning and memory.

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