The days when we believed sports concussions only concerned adults or superstar athletes are over. Contrary to the long-held belief that a child’s brain is more resilient than an adult’s, and that youth athletes can play through a concussion, findings from our laboratory show that children are as vulnerable as adults to a traumatic head injury. In fact, we found that teenage athletes are more affected by concussions than are adults.
As a neuroscientist and clinical neuropsychologist specialised in human development, I find these results quite alarming.
Our study compared athletes from contact sports (such as hockey, football, and soccer) who sustained a concussion to teammates who avoided this type of injury. We recruited athletes from three distinct age groups: children (nine to 12-year-olds,) adolescents (13 to 16-year-olds,) and young adults (20 to 26-year-olds.) To understand the consequences of a concussion on the athlete’s brain, all participants in our study were assessed with neuropsychological tests and electroencephalography. The neuropsychological tests measured brain functions like long-term memory, attention, and working memory. The electroencephalography recorded how quickly the neurons fired.
We found that for each age group, a sports concussion causes a significant reduction in the strength of the neuronal responses that are typically associated with working memory - a cornerstone brain function that allows us to manipulate and juggle verbal and visual information. This cognitive ability is critical for most aspects of learning, such as problem solving and reading comprehension.
But, in our study, we found this impact was greatest for the group of adolescents.
These findings are consistent with the hypothesis that it is the frontal region of the brain (the area that manages working memory) that is the most vulnerable to a sport-related head injury. In fact, it is likely that teenagers have greater deficits than the two other age groups because that area of the brain undergoes its growth spurt during adolescence, thus making it much more vulnerable to brain damage.
This is of particular importance given that the child and adolescent brain is so highly solicited in school. Most adults are able to slow down their activities to give their brains the rest needed, but this is not always possible for kids in school. As a clinician, I have seen academic results of a number of young athletes greatly suffer because of their concussions. Some students even had to repeat an entire school year because they could no longer concentrate on their school work.
I hope that our findings will serve to educate parents and coaches with regards to the consequences of sport concussions. I believe that each team, no matter the level of play, should have an adult responsible to identify potential concussive incidents. No chances should be taken. As soon as there is a concern that an athlete has suffered a concussion they should be taken out of the game immediately. Then it should be up to medical professionals, including neuropsychologists, to determine whether or not the athlete has been concussed. They should only return to play once cleared by the specialist. Parents need to encourage athletic organisations to properly diagnose and manage concussions. Our research findings certainly warrant a more conservative return-to-play approach and additional academic accommodations for the concussed teenage athlete.
Sports concussions are a serious thing and we need to work on increasing awareness. But, our goal as scientists and clinicians is not to scare parents and kids away from contact sports. To the contrary, being active and participating in collective sporting events is essential for the individual’s physical and mental health. In fact, another line of my research suggests that being physically active during childhood makes a significant contribution the child’s intellectual and cognitive development.
Dr. Dave Ellemberg is a neuropsychologist and a professor in the Department of Kinesiology at the University of Montreal.
All statements and opinions expressed on this blog are those of the individual contributors, and not of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation or NBC News.