Do Head Injuries Affect the Ability to Learn?

Contact sports may cause academic problems for student athletes

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

(RxWiki News) Head injuries that do not result in a serious concussion are often ignored and young students continue to play sports that cause these head injuries. However, even minor head injuries can have a major impact.

Thomas W. McAllister, MD., of the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth, authored a study that looked into the learning of student athletes in contact sports.

"Tell your coach immediately if you don't feel well after head contact. "

Researchers took 214 NCAA Division I athletes from the contact sports football and ice hockey and compared them to 45 athletes that played non-contact sports. The football and ice hockey athletes wore special helmets that were fitted with instruments to record the “acceleration-time history of the head following impact”.

The total group of athletes was assessed at the beginning and end of the season with a cognitive screening battery test (ImPACT). Within the group of athletes a subgroup of 45 contact sport and 55 non-contact sport athletes were also assessed with 7 measures from a neuropsychological test battery.

The contact sports group received around 469 head impacts in the season, but if they resulted in a concussion that athlete was disqualified from the study.

The cognitive differences between the contact and the non-contact groups from the beginning to the end of the season were not significant.

When the California Verbal Learning Test was used to gauge the athletes, 24 percent of the contact athletes performed worse on the test compared to 3.6 percent of the non-contact athletes. 

Dr. McAllister stated, “The good news is that overall there were few differences in the test results between the athletes in contact sports and the athletes in non-contact sports, but we did find that a higher percentage of the contact sport athletes had lower scores than would have been predicted after the season on a measure of new learning than the non-contact sport athletes.”

There were no longitudinal measures in the test to determine whether the lower test results are permanent or short term.

According the Dr. McAllister, “The findings do suggest that repetitive head impacts may have a negative effect on some athletes.”

This study will be published in the journal of the American Academy of Neurology, May 2012. Funding for this study was provided by the National Institutes of Health and the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment. No conflicts of interest were found. Richard M. Greenwald and Joseph J. Crisco have financial interest in the instruments used in the study.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
May 16, 2012
Last Updated:
July 27, 2012