Ex NFL Players Showed Abnormal Brain Activity

Hyperactive brain activity evident among former NFL players with no diagnosed brain conditions

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD Beth Bolt, RPh

(RxWiki News) Concussion guidelines and treatments have been getting a lot of attention in the sports and medical communities over the last several months. But routine tests for common head injuries might not catch all conditions and troubles with the brain.

A recent study found that former National Football League (NFL) players who were not diagnosed with any neurological or brain conditions showed unusual patterns of brain activity in a brain scan compared to the scans of healthy non-NFL players.

The extra brain activity was found in the frontal lobe — a part of the brain in charge of planning, organizing and memory.

According to the authors of this study, their findings show that using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) on the brain could be used to track possible neurologic issues that can't be picked up by standard tests.

"Protect your head when playing contact sports."

Adam Hampshire, PhD, senior lecturer in the Computational, Cognitive and Clinical Neuroimaging Laboratory at Imperial College London in the UK, led this study involving 13 former NFL players who believed they currently had neurological and cognitive issues as a result of their careers, but who were not diagnosed with any neurological conditions.

The players, along with 60 other healthy participants, were instructed to rearrange a set of colored balls in a series of tubes in as few steps as possible.

Using fMRI testing, the researchers measured all participants' brain activity while they performed the test.

Former NFL players had more hyperactive brain functioning in the frontal lobe of their brain, the researchers found. The frontal lobe controls the body's planning, organizational and retrieval processes.

While the NFL players performed worse on the test than the other group, the difference was not significant.

After the human brain is damaged, "...it can work harder and bring extra areas on line in order to cope with cognitive tasks," according to Dr. Hampshire.

"It’s not unusual for an individual who has had a blow to the head to perform relatively well on a neuropsychological testing battery, and then go on to struggle in everyday life," Dr. Hampshire said in a news release.

The study's authors noted that while the NFL players included in their study were not diagnosed with or treated for psychiatric or neurological conditions, many of them believed they had problems processing information during their careers.

In addition, the researchers could not differentiate between concussions and head injuries that were not concussions.

Dan Clearfield, DO, a dailyRx Contributing Expert and primary care sports medicine physician, said that while the data supports further research into fMRIs as way to identify people who are or were affected by minor brain injuries, there's still not enough to data to support making fMRIs a part of standard testing and care for head injuries.

"Being seen and evaluated by a health care practitioner that is skilled in the evaluation and management of concussion is still the standard, and this is coupled with other modalities such as neurocognitive testing to ensure a safe return to play for the athlete," Dr. Clearfield said.

The researchers said that large scale, long-term research is needed to find out whether brain activity is similar in other populations that have traumatic brain injuries.

The study, funded by the Hubbard Foundation and the Canada Excellence Research Chair Program, was published online October 17 in Scientific Reports. No conflicts of interest were reported.

Review Date: 
October 18, 2013
Last Updated:
October 23, 2013