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Young athletes’ brains still recovering from concussion at three months, study suggests

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Young ice hockey players who suffer a concussion may still have brain changes several months after being cleared to return to play, according to a Canadian study.

The research, published in Neurology, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology, suggests that changes in the white matter of the brain can persist for at least three months.

Researchers at Western University in Ontario looked at high field-strength MRI brain scans from 17 hockey players aged between 11 and 14 who suffered a concussion during the season, and compared them to an age-matched control of non-concussed players.

Most of the concussions resulted from players falling and hitting the back of the head.

For all players with concussion, scores on thinking and memory tests returned to normal before the three-month follow-up. On average, they took 24 days (ranging from 10 to 46 days) to recover and be cleared to return to play.

However, compared to the brain scans of healthy players, the scans of the concussed players three months after the concussion showed signs of widespread damage to the white matter of the brain, as well as a 10% reduction in molecules associated with metabolism. The scans also showed other areas of the brain trying to create new connections in a possible attempt to recover function, according to the American Academy of Neurology.

“What the MRI shows is that there are still changes occurring in the brain even after the clinical tests have returned to normal,” said study author Ravi Menon, PhD. “This is potentially of some concern and we’d like to understand this further to determine if these are normal healthy changes or if they are indicative of something that might be going wrong.”

Current testing for thinking, memory and balance may not be sensitive enough, Menon added. “These players were back on the ice when our study suggests their brains still needed time to heal.”