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NCAA Football Players Have Smaller Brain Volume

Update Date: May 14, 2014 02:01 PM EDT

Several studies have examined the impact of high-contact sports, like football, on the brain. These studies concluded that repeated hits to the heads that can lead to concussions hurt the athletes' mental health. In a new study, researchers examined the brain scans of football players from the NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) and found that regardless of concussions, athletes had smaller brain volume when compared to non-playing peers.

In this study headed by senior researcher Patrick Bellgowan, an associate professor at the Laureate Institute for Brain Research in Tulsa, OK, the team examined the brain scans of 50 NCAA Division I football players and 25 male non-players who were of the same age and education level. 50 percent of the football players had suffered from at least one concussion that was confirmed by a physician. The MRI brain scans were focused on the hippocampus, which is the area of the brain that is in charge of memories and emotions.

After comparing the brain scans, the researchers discovered that football players in general had a smaller hippocampus than non-players. When the team factored in one's history of concussions, they found that the difference in size was even more pronounced. Players who suffered from concussions had a hippocampus that was about 25 percent smaller, on average, when compared to the hippocampus of non-players.

"This shows you can start to see changes in hippocampal volume even in young players, about 20 years old," said Bellgowan according to Philly.

The researchers also tested the participants' reaction time via cognitive tests. They found that players who participated in the sport the longest had slower reaction times on these tests. Despite this finding, the researchers are unsure how the changes in brain volume affect the young adults' mental health. The team added that the brain changes could have resulted from other factors as well. The researchers listed genetic variations, environmental variables and hormones as potential causes of brain changes.

"We need to know what the long-term consequences are of having a smaller hippocampus," said Dr. Jeffrey Bazarian, an emergency physician at the University of Rochester Medical Center, who was not a part of the study, reported by the Los Angeles Times. We really need to know what these players look like 10 to 15 years from now, and we have to do the hard work of knowing what the threshold is, in terms of hits to the head, for hippocampal damage."

The study was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

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