University of Indiana researcher Nicholas Port, studying eye-tracking technology used to assess an athlete for concussion following an impact. (Photo courtesy of Indiana University)

University of Indiana researcher Nicholas Port, studying the results from eye-tracking technology used to assess an athlete for concussion following an impact. (Photo courtesy of University of Indiana)

Indiana University researchers studying the brains of football players and cross-country runners using fMRI technology note differences in their brains, primarily in the areas responsible for visual processing.

The differences were observed as both groups were given a simple visual task.

The results could suggest that a history of minor but repeated blows to the head can result in compensatory changes to the brain as it relates to eye movement function. Or it could show how the hundreds of hours that contact sport players spend on eye-hand coordination skills lead to a reorganization of the brain in the areas dedicated to eye movements, explains a media release from Indiana University.

Nicholas Port, senior author of the study, published recently in the journal NeuroImage: Clinical notes that the findings contribute important information to research on subconcussive blows—or “microconcussions”—that are common in sports such as football, soccer, ice hockey, snowboarding, and skiing.

“The verdict is still out on the seriousness of subconcussions, but we’ve got to learn more since we’re seeing a real difference between people who participate in sports with higher risk for these impacts,” says Port, an associate professor in the IU School of Optometry, in the release. “It’s imperative to learn whether these impacts have an actual effect on cognitive function—as well as how much exposure is too much.”

In the study, Port and researchers in the IU Bloomington Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences scanned the brains of 21 football players and 19 cross-country runners using fMRI technology.

The researchers also scanned the brains of 11 non-college-level athletes from socioeconomic backgrounds similar to the football players to ensure their scan results were not rooted in factors unrelated to their sport.

The differences in football players’ versus cross-country runners’ brains were specifically seen in regions of the brain responsible for visual processing. These regions were much more active in football players versus cross-country runners or volunteers who did not play college sports, the release continues.

“We focused on these brain regions because physicians and trainers regularly encounter large deficits in players’ ability to smoothly track a moving point with their eyes after suffering an acute concussion,” Port states.

Although there were clear differences between the brains of the football players and the cross-country runners, Port says that interpretation of the study’s results is challenging.

“Everyone from musicians to taxi drivers has differences in brain activity related to their specific skills,” he adds. “The differences in this study may reflect a lifetime exposure of subconcussive blows to the head, or they could simply be the result of playing a visually demanding sport where you’re constantly using your hands and tracking the ball.”

A similar analysis using only football players would be the ideal way to find the root cause of these differences, he shares.

[Source(s): University of Indiana, EurekAlert]