Brain damage from a concussion can last for decades after the initial injury, requiring long-term care for most sufferers, even after symptoms disappear, new research shows.
The study, which comes as the National Football League braces for lawsuits by 4,000 former players alleging the league failed to protect them from the consequences of concussions, found brain waves of young athletes who suffered concussions “remain abnormal” for at least two years after an injury and that parts of the brain “atrophy” or die, following a hit.
"Even when you are symptom-free, your brain may still not be back to normal," said Maryse Lassonde, M.D., a neuropsychologist and the scientific director of the Quebec Nature and Technologies Granting Agency.
Dr. Lassonde, who presented the findings at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Boston this week, was a consultant with the Montreal Canadians hockey team, treating players with concussions for 15 years. Her research, which was funded by the Canada Foundation for Innovation, examined the effects of concussions on children and young athletes as well as older athletes.
For her study, Dr. Lassonde had athletes perform visual and auditory tasks, while monitoring scans for their brain activity. She also conducted brain chemistry tests. In addition, she tracked the long-term effects of concussion by studying older athletes who suffered their last head injury 30 years earlier, and compared them to healthy individuals who had not experienced concussions.
The results indicated those who had suffered a head injury had memory loss, attention deficits, and motor problems similar to the early symptoms of Parkinson's disease. The older athletes also had changes in the same regions of the brain that Alzheimer's disease usually affects.
In addition, her research found young players who return to playing too early, and suffer a second concussion, risk serious brain damage or death.
Dr. Lassonde said the results, which were published in the journals Brain and Cerebral Cortex, have significant implications for amateur and professional sports, the treatment of players, and the importance of preventing violence in hockey and football.
"That tells you that first of all, concussions lead to attention problems, which we can see using sophisticated [brain-scanning] techniques," she said. "This may also lead to motor problems in young athletes.
"If a child or any player has a concussion, they should be kept away from playing or doing any mental exercise until their symptoms abate. Concussions should not be taken lightly. We should really also follow former players in clinical settings to make sure they are not ageing prematurely in terms of cognition."
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