Using a battery of imaging and cognitive tests, Johns Hopkins specialists have gathered evidence of accumulated brain damage that may be linked to specific memory deficits experienced by former National Football League players decades after retirement.
The study, results of which were published in the February 2015 issue of Neurobiology of Disease, included nine former NFL players ranging in age from 57 to 74 years. Each had played a variety of team positions and had a wide range of self-reported, historical concussions, varying from none for a running back to 40 for a defensive tackle. Nine age-matched, healthy controls with no reason to suspect they had brain injuries were also recruited, according to a press release.
Each of the study participants underwent a positron emission tomography (PET) scan and MRI, allowing the researchers to compare PET scan findings with participants’ anatomical locations to check for structural abnormalities. The participants also underwent a battery of memory tests.
Although the healthy controls were observed to have no evidence of brain damage, PET scans revealed the former NFL players had evidence of brain injury in several regions of the temporal medial lobe, including the amygdala, which plays a significant role in regulating mood, according to the release. Additionally, the former players’ MRIs revealed atrophy of the right-side hippocampus — a segment of the brain connected to certain aspects of memory — suggesting that region may have decreased in size due to previous damage.
The researchers also found the former NFL players scored low on memory tests, particularly on those testing verbal learning and memory.
If similar findings are reported in larger studies, the researchers suggested their molecular brain imaging technique could eventually lead to changes in the way players are treated after experiencing concussion, according to the release.