Brain Changes Can Persist 6 Months After Severe Concussion

A new study finds that athletes who suffer from a severe concussion may still have white matter changes in the brain six months later, even when there are no obvious symptoms.

White matter is responsible for carrying nerve impulses between neurons and is the connecting tissue between various gray matter areas. It is likened to the “wiring” behind the walls.

For the study, researchers assessed 17 high school and college football players who had experienced a sports-related concussion. The participants underwent MRI brain scans and were assessed for concussion symptoms, balance problems, and cognitive impairment, or memory and thinking problems, at 24 hours, eight days and six months following the concussion.

The researchers also evaluated 18 carefully matched athletes who had not experienced a concussion.

At all time points, all participants had advanced brain scans called diffusion tensor imaging and diffusion kurtosis tensor imaging to look for acute and chronic changes to the brain’s white matter. The scans use the movement of water molecules in brain tissue to measure microstructural changes in white matter, which connects different brain regions.

The findings show that the athletes who had experienced a concussion had less water movement, or diffusion, in the acute stages following concussion (24 hours, six days) compared to those who did not have concussions. These microstructural changes still remained six months after the injury.

Athletes who exhibited more severe symptoms at the time of the concussion were more likely to have alterations in the brain’s white matter six months later. However, there was no difference between the group of athletes with and without concussion with regard to self-reported concussion symptoms, cognition, or balance at six months post-injury.

“In other words, athletes may still experience long-term brain changes even after they feel they have recovered from the injury,” said study author Melissa Lancaster, Ph.D., of the Medical College of Wisconsin in Milwaukee.

“These findings have important implications for managing concussions and determining recovery in athletes who have experienced a sports-related concussion. Additional research is needed to determine how these changes relate to long-term outcomes.”

In the last decade, the number of reported concussions has doubled, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). An estimated 5.3 million Americans live with a traumatic brain injury-related disability.

The findings were presented at the Sports Concussion Conference in Chicago, hosted by the American Academy of Neurology. The conference brings together leading experts in the field to present and discuss the latest scientific advances in diagnosing and treating sports-related concussion.

Source: American Academy of Neurology