Study finds ‘subtle’ changes to brains of youth football players; regardless of concussions

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WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. -- New results from a study looking at the impact that football impacts have on the brains of youth players have been released and they show changes, even if the players have not had a concussion.

“We understand that concussions are bad for your brain, but what about all those other hits,” asked Dr. Christopher Whitlow, of Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center.

The research team studied 25 male youth football players -- aged 8 through 13 -- in the Winston-Salem area. Pictures of their brains were taken both before and after the season. In addition, sensors were placed in each of their helmets to record head impact data.

“What we found were some changes in the white matter of the brain that are related to the amount of exposure they had,” Whitlow said.

The fact that there are some changes in the bodies of the players over the course of a season, Whitlow said, is not necessarily surprising. He cited other injuries, such as bumps and bruises, as examples.

However, if the changes to the white matter persist, or if they’re long-term, cannot be determined at this point.

Whitlow called the changes “subtle,” adding that he would let his kids play football.

The results of the study were released to the parents of the 25 players, including Kindra Ritzie-Worthy.

“The first impact that I heard, whether it was the helmet or the shoulder pads, I was a little taken back,” she recalled.

But, Ritzie-Worthy echoed what Whitlow said to FOX8, which is that there are a lot of health benefits to sports and physical activity.

“Until they say, ‘Mommy this is not something that I want to do,’ I’m going to continue to support their efforts,” Ritzie-Worthy said.

Both sides also agreed that there are risks in everything we do, not just in football.

“My youngest, he actually sustained his first concussion, not from playing football, just by riding a skateboard down the hill,” Ritzie-Worthy said.

Whitlow said that what’s important now, is that the researchers are “asking the right questions.” Now, he says, they need to follow athletes long-term, and use larger numbers of athletes in their studies, so they can generalize.

Until then, he suggests that parents stay involved in the game, know what’s going on and understand the signs and symptoms of head injuries.