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MRI Finds Odd Activity In NFL Retirees’ Brains

October 20, 2013
Written by: , Filed in: Neuroradiology
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Functional MRI has detected very unusual patterns of activity in the brains of retired American professional football players, shedding light on how the brain compensates for injury, according to the lead author of an article about the research.

The article was published online last week in the open-access journal Scientific Reports.

The researchers looked at 13 retired National Football League players and a control group of 60 volunteers. None of the participants had been diagnosed with neurological or psychiatric illness, although some of the former players, according to the article, “reported that they were experiencing distressing cognitive problems in everyday life.”

On a test that involved taking as few steps as possible to rearrange colored balls in a series of tubes, the ex-players performed only slightly worse than the controls. However, the fMRI readings during the test startled lead author Adam Hampshire, MD:

The NFL alumni showed some of the most pronounced abnormalities in brain activity that I have ever seen, and I have processed a lot of patient data sets in the past.

Dr. Hampshire is a senior lecturer in restorative neurosciences in the Department of Medicine at Imperial College London. In comparison to the control group, the former players showed markedly more activity but markedly less connectivity in the frontal lobe, which is responsible for executive functions that regulate other cognitive processes. The level of abnormal activity correlated with the players’ reported number of head impacts during their careers that were severe enough to require them to be removed from a game.

“The results tell us something very interesting about the human brain,” Dr. Hampshire said, “which is that after damage, it can work harder and bring extra areas on line in order to cope with cognitive tasks.”

That, he said, could explain why the former players, as well as others who have suffered head injuries, might perform relatively well on cognitive tests but struggle in everyday life. “It is likely that in more complicated real-world scenarios, this plasticity is insufficient,” he said, “and consequently the executive impairment is no longer masked.”

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