Contact Sports Further Linked to Changes in Brain Chemistry

by John Kerin ‘20

2.5 million emergency room visits, hospitalizations, or deaths were associated with a single Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), or a combination of a TBI and additional sources of injury (Source: Wikimedia Commons).

2.5 million emergency room visits, hospitalizations, or deaths were associated with a single Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), or a combination of a TBI and additional sources of injury (Source: Wikimedia Commons).

In recent months, the effects of contact sports on brain health have become a widely debated issue in the scientific and sporting communities. An increasing number of studies show that contact sports have an observable effect on brain chemistry. Jesse Mez and Daniel Daneshvar of Boston University recently found that ninety-nine percent of the 111 deceased NFL players they studied had some level of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) (1). Another recent study, from Schranz et al. at the University of Western Ontario, showed that issues regarding the brain health of athletes are not limited to American football players (2).

This study examined 15 different female athletes on the Western Ontario rugby team, over the course of four years. Using Magnetic Resonance Spectroscopy, researchers measured metabolite levels in the athletes before and after each season, as well as after any reported concussions (2). The study found that players that suffered concussions during the season “had a large reduction in the level of a metabolite called glutamine,” according to Robert Bartha, a professor at the Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry. Glutamine is an integral piece of the glutamate neurotransmission cycle, and also functions as an energy substrate in situations where the brain requires a lot of energy (2).

By testing athletes before the season began, researchers were able to see the very subtle changes in glutamine levels in each specific concussed athlete. Each of the concussed athletes exhibited a lower level of brain glutamine immediately after (24-72 hours), 3 months after, and 6 months after suffering a concussion. The study consequently asserts that even once a concussed athlete’s clinical concussion test scores returned to normal and they were cleared to return to play, their glutamine levels remained lower than the levels from their baseline test, pre-concussion (2).

Schranz et al. concluded that concussion protocols may not be enough to keep athletes safe from permanently injuring their brains. Even though athletes were cleared to return to play, the MRS imaging still showed that the athletes’ glutamine levels were low. This observation serves as new evidence that many athletes could potentially be returning to the game before their brains have fully recovered from concussions and other head injuries. Schranz et al. claim that MRS imaging could be more sensitive to brain injuries than current widely used concussion tests and could better assess recovery from brain injury (2).

(1) Mez, J., Daneshvar, D. H., Kiernan, P. T., Abdolmohammadi, B., Alvarez, V. E., Huber, B. R., … & Cormier, K. A. (2017). Clinicopathological evaluation of chronic traumatic encephalopathy in players of American football. Jama318(4), 360-370.

(2) Schranz, A. L., Manning, K. Y., Dekaban, G. A., Fischer, L., Jevremovic, T., Blackney, K., … & Holmes, J. (2017). Reduced brain glutamine in female varsity rugby athletes after concussion and in non‐concussed athletes after a season of play. Human brain mapping.

(3) “Female Rugby Players Shows a Regular Season of Play Results in Changes in Brain.”ScienceDaily, 17 Jan. 2018, www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/01/180117104005.htm.