The National Football League is facing lawsuits by 4,000 former players who allege the organizations failed to protect them from the long-term consequences of concussions.
A psychologist that consulted with the Montreal Canadiens hockey team and treated players with concussions for 15 years undertook research into the effects of concussions on children and young athletes as well as older athletes.
To study the effects of concussions,
Dr. Maryse Lassonde, a neuropsychologist and the scientific director of the Quebec Nature and Technologies Granting Agency
had athletes perform specific visual and auditory tasks and also mapped their brains with the help of EEG and MRI equipment, in addition to testing brain chemistry.
Her research found that brain waves remain abnormal in young athletes for two years following a concussion, and atrophy occurs in the motor pathways of the brain following a hit.
The results of her work, which were published in the journals Brain and Cerebral Cortex, have important implications for the regulation of amateur and professional sports, the treatment of players and the importance of preventing violence in hockey and football.
"Even when you are symptom-free, your brain may still not be back to normal," says Lassonde. "That tells you that first of all, concussions lead to attention problems, which we can see using sophisticated techniques such as the EEG. This may also lead to motor problems in young athletes."
The long-term effects in older former athletes are even more persistent.
By studying older athletes who suffered their last concussion 30 years earlier, and comparing them to healthy peers who had not experienced concussions, Lassonde discovered those who had suffered a head trauma had memory and attention deficits and motor problems similar to the early symptoms of Parkinson's disease. Further testing of these older athletes turned up a thinning of the cortex in the same regions of the brain that Alzheimer's disease usually affects.
"This thinning correlated with memory decline and attention decline," Lassonde says.
In addition to the recovery time required following a concussion, adds that young players who return to their sport too early and suffer a second concussion risk serious brain damage or death.
"If a child or any player has a concussion, they should be kept away from playing or doing any mental exercise until their symptoms abate," Lassonde says. "Concussions should not be taken lightly. We should really also follow former players in clinical settings to make sure they are not ageing prematurely in terms of cognition."
Her talk was at the AAAS Annual Meeting Sunday February, 17th.