In the past, the media often portrayed the “cool” skater kids as the kids who perform daredevil tricks, speeding down the ramps, without helmets or pads. (Think Rocket Power.) When I was younger, I was really into rollerblading (I still am) and I was the girl that always tried to race out of the garage before my parents could notice that I wasn’t wearing a helmet. I was already the only girl playing street hockey with the boys on our street, and I didn’t want to look like a sissy with my helmet on… At the time, I didn’t understand why it was so important it was to wear a helmet. I knew about concussions, but they only lasted a week or two, right?
There has been a growing amount of research around the long-term impacts of concussions and other traumatic head injuries, and the physical damage they do to the brain. A recent study conducted by Albaugh, Orr, Nickerson, Zweber, Slauterbeck, Hipko, Gonyea, Andrews, Brackenbury, Watts, and Hudziak (2015) investigated the physical changes in cortical morphology among adolescents who had a history of concussions. Specifically, they targeted boys ages 14 – 23 who played ice hockey. They underwent neuroimaging and took a baseline Immediate Post-Concussion Assessment and Cognitive Testing (ImPACT) testing. ImPACT tests are universally used to measure concussion symptoms in cognition. Their concussion history and baseline measures of psychopathology were also recorded.
Cortical thickness is a general term for the thickness of the layers of the brain tissue in the cerebral cortex. In mammals, cortical thickness corresponds to perceived intelligence, and larger cortical volume indicates increased behavior flexibility (Kolb & Whishaw, 2001). Cortical thickness is also correlated with number of neurons. Most mammals show almost exactly the same amount of neurons when the same volumes of cortex are compared (Kolb & Whishaw, 2001)
Results showed that higher scores on the ImPACT test, indicting greater endorsed post-concussion symptoms, were related to less cortical thickness in brain areas. Specific brain areas that indicated this were regions of the left medial prefrontal cortex and left temporal cortex. Albaugh et al. (2015) also found an “Age by Concussion History” interaction for cortical thickness in right ventrolateral prefrontal and right parietal regions. People with history of concussions showed reduced rates of age-related cortical thinning. Cortical thinning is a normative process that happens as we age. Reduced rates of this process are associated with anxious/depressed symptoms and attention problems.
There are different degrees of concussion severity. Typically, the severity is measured through performance on the ImPACT test through various cognitive symptoms. Common symptoms include difficulty concentrating, difficulty remembering, fatigue, and mental fog. In the past, it has been thought that these symptoms are only present when recovering, similar to when you catch a cold. These long-term effects, however, are important when considering safety measures in contact sports such as hockey and football. Sports leagues should use this knowledge to strengthen their regulations and requirements on safety headwear, because ultimately, you only get one brain and you have to take care of it!
Albaugh, M., Orr, C., Nickerson, J., Zweber, C., Slauterbeck, J., Hipko, S., Gonyea, J., Andrews, T., Brackenbury, J., Watts, R., Hudziak, J. (2015). Postconcussion Symptoms Are Associated with Cerebral Cortical Thickness in Healthy Collegiate and Preparatory School Ice Hockey Players. The Journal of Pediatrics, 166(2), 394 – 400.
Kolb, B., & Whishaw, I. Q. (2001). An introduction to brain and behavior. Worth Publishers. Retrieved from http://books.google.com.