A study published recently in JAMA Neurology suggests that there may be a relationship between concussions experienced among National Football League (NFL) players during game play that led to unconsciousness, and key differences in their brain structures later in life, according to a news release from UT Southwestern Medical Center, Dallas.

A team of neurologists and neuropsychologists from UT Southwestern Medical Center and the Center for BrainHealth at UT Dallas reportedly compared the relationship between hippocampal volume, memory performance, and concussion severity among a group of former NFL players ranging in age from 36 to 79 years old, with a mean age of 58, to a group of 21 men of similar age, educational level, and intelligence with no history of concussion or professional football experience.

The research team found that the hippocampus—a part of the brain involved in memory—was smaller in 28 former NFL players, compared to the control group, the release explains. Some of the retired NFL players, they found, also met the criteria for Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI), a condition that typically affects memory and may lead to dementia. The findings, the release notes, were more pronounced among NFL players who experienced more severe concussions.

The results do not explain why the hippocampus was smaller among athletes who experienced more serious concussions, according to researchers. The release explains that some shrinkage is part of the normal aging process, but the reduction is accentuated in MCI and was even more notable in the NFL players who met the criteria for MCI and also experienced concussion with loss of consciousness. Thus, the release continues, there appears to be a cumulative effect of concussion history and MCI on hippocampal size and function.

In explaining the findings, C. Munro Cullum, PhD, professor of Psychiatry and Neurology and Neurotherapeutics, and co-author of the study, notes in the release, “While we found that aging individuals with a history of concussion and loss of consciousness showed smaller hippocampal volumes and lower memory test scores, the good news is that we did not detect a similar relationship among subjects with a history of concussion that did not involve loss of consciousness, which represents the vast majority of concussions.”

Cullum continues by saying that this is a preliminary study, and there is much more to be learned in the area of concussion and cognitive aging.

The study’s primary investigator was John Hart, MD, professor of Neurology and Neurotherapeutics, and Psychiatry at UT Southwestern, and medical science director and a professor of Behavioral and Brain Sciences at the Center for BrainHealth at UT Dallas. Kyle Womack, MD, associate professor of Neurology and Neurotherapeutics, and Psychiatry at UT Southwestern, was a contributing author.

[Source(s): UT Southwestern Medical Center, Newswise]