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Study: Minor Head Hits May Cause Brain Injury to Young Athletes

The possibility that minor, routine impacts to the head could cause long-term brain injuries in student-athletes has been one of the hottest theories in the field of concussion research over the past few years.

A study released this week by the University of Rochester (with an admittedly small sample size) lends credence to that theory.

Researchers from the University of Rochester Medical Center found that brain scans of high school hockey and football players sometimes showed subtle hints of injury, even if the players didn't suffer concussions.

Only nine athletes took part in the research (along with six people in a control group) during the 2006-07 sports season. Of the nine athletes who participanted, only one was diagnosed with a sports-related concussion over the course of the season.

The cause for concern: Six other athletes showed abnormalities on their brain scans that placed their brains closer to the concussed brains than to the brains in the control group.

All six had sustained a number of subconcussive (routine) hits to the head while playing their respective sports.

"Although this was a very small study, if confirmed it could have broad implications for youth sports," said Dr. Jeffrey Bazarian, lead author and associate professor of emergency medicine at the medical center, in a statement. "The challenge is to determine whether a critical number of head hits exists above which this type of brain injury appears, and then to get players and coaches to agree to limit play when an athlete approached that number."

In other words: There's a lot more research needed before scientists can comfortably confirm a link between routine hits in sports and long-lasting brain injuries.

But, by taking brain scans of the same players pre- and postseason, the URMC study sets itself apart from most other research on the subject, which often compares the brains of injured players to brains in a control group.

The URMC study, on the other hand, doesn't have to account for subtle differences between individuals' brains. By having preseason brain scans of each player, the doctors in the study could isolate the changes to the players' brains that occurred in the 2006-07 season.

Needless to say, if scientists eventually can determine a link between routine head impacts and long-term brain injury, it'll have a chilling effect on youth contact sports.

If that link is ever confirmed, expect a swath of rule changes for a number of sports to move forward much quicker than usual.

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