December 11, 2013 5:01 pm
Updated: December 11, 2013 5:05 pm

Even without concussion, head injuries still affect learning, memory, study warns

This Aug. 4, 2012 file photo shows new football helmets that were given to a group of youth football players from the Akron Parents Pee Wee Football League, in Akron, Ohio.

(AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar, File)

TORONTO – Even if athletes aren’t diagnosed with a concussion, blows to the head during a single season of football or hockey are enough to cause damage to the brain, a new study is warning.

Memory, cognition and thinking abilities are all affected by these injuries, however severe, Indiana University School of Medicine researchers said.

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READ MORE: Mood swings, memory loss first symptoms of brain disease in hockey, football players

“We found differences in the white matter of the brain in those college contact sport athletes compared to non-contact sport varsity athletes,” the lead author, Dr. Thomas McAllister said.

In his study, 80 concussion-free athletes who played football or hockey – and wore helmets – were compared to another 80 athletes in track, crew or Nordic skiing. The players were tested before and shortly after the season with brain scans and learning and memory tests.

Results showed that both types of athletes performed worse than predicted on verbal and memory tests at the end of the season, but across the board, the hockey and football players did worse.

“What they found is there are some minor changes on the MRI, even in athletes that don’t report that they’ve had a concussion,” Dr. Rick Figler, a Cleveland Clinic concussion expert, said.

READ MORE: Panel finds helmets, mouth guards don’t prevent concussions

White matter helps to pass on messages, affects learning and mental illness. With these findings in mind, the researchers say they now want to dig deeper to determine how long these negative effects linger.

Figler said the research stresses the importance of educating athletes about getting proper care if they feel like they have concussion symptoms.

“If they feel anything after an injury like that, a head hit, even a slight trauma and they’re aware of it and they pay attention to it, they come off the field. Those that come off the field or off the ice sooner typically get better faster,” Figler said.

This study comes just weeks after 10 former NHL players formed a class-action lawsuit, alleging the league hasn’t done enough to protect players from concussions.

READ MORE: NFL Players’ Association hands Harvard $100 million to study injury

In late August, the NFL and its 4,500 ex-players brokered a $765 million settlement to resolve concussion-related lawsuits.

Research conducted on Canadian soil has even warned that helmets and mouth guards don’t necessarily prevent players from head injuries, specifically concussions.

McAllister’s study was published Wednesday in the journal Neurology.

READ MORE: Bodychecking rules don’t help limit concussions in the NHL, Canadian research suggests

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