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Blows to the head – even without a concussion – may affect learning

December 18, 2013

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Hanover, NH – Head hits that do not cause a concussion may still alter the brain and the person’s cognitive abilities, according to a new study from Indiana University and Dartmouth College.

Using MRI technology, researchers examined the brains of 80 football and ice hockey players from Dartmouth and 79 athletes from non-contact sports, such as track and Nordic skiing. The study excluded players who sustained a concussion during the season.

No major differences were found in the brains of athletes in contact and non-contact sports, which researchers called “reassuring,” according to a press release. However, some athletes in contact sports showed changes in white matter – brain tissue that contains nerve fibers – based on the number and intensity of the hits they received during play.

Further, the hockey and football players with the most changes in white matter scored lower at the end of the season on tests of memory and new learning, leading researchers to conclude repetitive head hits may adversely impact learning ability.

The study was published online Dec. 12 in the journal Neurology.