Head impacts experienced during contact sports such as football and hockey may worsen college athletes’ ability to acquire new information, according to a study of athletes from three Division I schools.
The findings, published in Neurology, involved 214 Division I athletes in contact sports and 45 athletes in non-contact sports, such as track, crew and Nordic skiing. Athletes were assessed at the beginning and end of their respective seasons, with the contact sport athletes wearing special helmets that recorded acceleration speed and other data at the time of any head impact.
According to an American Academy of Neurology news release, the contact sport athletes experienced an average of 469 head impacts during the season. Athletes were not included in the study if they were diagnosed with a concussion during the season.
“The good news is that overall, there were few differences in the test results between the athletes in contact sports and the athletes in non-contact sports,” study author Thomas W. McAllister, MD, stated in the release. “But we did find that a higher percentage of the contact sport athletes had lower scores than would have been predicted after the season on a measure of new learning than the non-contact athletes.”
The researchers found a total of 22% of the contact sport athletes performed worse than expected on the test of new learning, compared with 4% of the non-contact sport athletes.
According to the study abstract, two postseason cognitive measures revealed poorer performance to be significantly associated with higher scores on several head impact exposure metrics.
“These results are somewhat reassuring, given the recent heightened concern about the potential negative effects of these sports,” McAllister stated. “Nevertheless, the findings do suggest that repetitive head impacts may have a negative effect on some athletes.”
McAllister TW, Flashman LA, Maerlender A, et al. Cognitive effects of one season of head impacts in a cohort of collegiate contact sport athletes. Neurology. 2012. doi: 10.1212/WNL.0b013e3182582fe7