Study Suggests Link Between Childhood Concussions and Brain Damage Later in Life

Former NFL athletes who began playing football before age 12 were at a higher risk of brain damage.

Adding to a growing body of concussion research, a new study from Boston University School of Medicine (BUSM) and Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH) says NFL players who started playing tackle football as kids are a higher risk for brain damage later in life.

The researchers examined the brains of 40 former NFL players, half of whom began playing younger than age 12 and half of whom started later in life, using magnetic resonance imaging. Despite the fact that each of the athletes had suffered approximately the same number of concussions total, those who began playing as kids—and thus, often sustained childhood concussions—were more likely to have altered brain anatomy, specifically in the structure that connects the two halves of the brain.

Though it’s not breaking news that football players are at a high risk of brain damage due to concussions, BUSM and BWH’s study is the first to specifically focus on how much early exposure—specifically during the critical development period between ages 10 and 12—matters. “This development process may be disrupted by repeated head impacts in childhood, possibly leading to lasting changes in brain structure,” explained lead author Julie Stamm in a statement, though the researchers did add that the study was too small to be taken conclusively.

Though BUSM and BWH’s study looked specifically at former NFL players, amateur athletes are also at risk of concussion-related brain damage, which is troubling since youth concussions are on the rise. And as the research mounts, more and more area hospitals are taking note.

Concord’s Emerson Hospital, for example, opened a new concussion center this week, joining a growing list of Boston-area institutions devoting significant time and energy to concussion treatment. The Robert C. Cantu Concussion Center—which is named for and helmed by Robert Cantu, a neurologist and concussion expert at Emerson—will provide resources for diagnosing, treating, and preventing both sport- and non-sport-related concussions, and will operate in conjunction with Emerson’s newly opened Clough Family Center for Rehabilitative and Sports Therapies.

In a statement, Emerson’s president and CEO, Christina Schuster, said the center is much-needed in the Greater Boston area:

“With the recent increase in people of all ages suffering from concussions, we are very excited to open the Dr. Robert C. Cantu Concussion Center,” said Christine Schuster, president and CEO of Emerson Hospital. “Our community has a very active and athletic population. With the opening of this center, we can continue to focus on keeping our neighbors healthy.”