Concussions, otherwise known as “mild traumatic brain injuries”, affect about 1.7 million Americans annually. Athletes make up a considerable part of that figure, causing many parents to grow concerned about letting their children participate in youth sports. In an attempt to better understand the impact of concussion and minimize the risk of re-injury for recovering athletes, scientists sought out a way to track microstructure changes in the patients’ brains.
Since conventional imaging methods had relatively little to contribute in the evaluation of concussion patients, the researchers used advanced MRI to examine 54 athletes in the study. Half of the participants had recent concussions, while the other 27 served as the matching control subjects. The participants underwent both resting-state functional MRI and diffusion tensor imaging within a week of injury and again after they were cleared to return to play (RTP).
The second diffusion tensor imaging scan showed changes in the patients’ fractional anisotropy (FA) and mean diffusivity (MD). Concussed brains reportedly had decreased FA and elevated MD. Meanwhile, the next resting-state functional MRI results indicated that concussed patients also had elevated global functional connectivity. When compared, scientists found that the participants’ microstructures in the brain were severely altered between the time of injury and medical clearance.
The study also reveals that there is a relationship between global functional connectivity and days to RTP. According to the findings, athletes with a longer recovery time displayed greater elevations in global functional connectivity at RTP.
For the longest time, most longitudinal studies in the subject of concussions were focused on fixed post-injury time intervals. This study helps bridge the significant gap in literature and proves that difference in brain structure persists at RTP. In the future, the researchers are confident that this will be key in refining concussion management strategies used today.