A new study that was presented to the annual meeting of the Association of Academic Physiatrists on February 10, 2017, suggests brain injury long-term effects in children may still be present as long as seven years after the injury is sustained. Furthermore, researchers found that children who sustain brain injuries are at increased risk to develop other functioning issues. The research highlights the importance of protecting children from brain injuries, especially children involved in high-risk sports or activities linked to traumatic brain injury.
Brain Injury Long-Term Effects Still Being Examined
As researchers examine brain injury's long-term effects, more is being learned about how a traumatic brain injury can affect a child’s development.
Also affecting a child’s recovery from a brain injury is the family environment. Researchers found that even with a severe brain injury, children in a stable, optimal family environment recovered better than children who had a mild injury but were in a chaotic home. Although children tend to recover well from a brain injury, there are certain skills including information processing and reasoning that show more long-term effects as a result of a traumatic brain injury.
“More than 630,000 children and teenagers in the United States are treated in emergency rooms for [traumatic brain injury] each year,” researchers from Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center note. ” Predictors of recovery following TBI, particularly the roles of genes and environment, are unclear. These environmental factors include family functioning, parenting practices, home environment, and socioeconomic status.”
Monitoring Student-Athletes Vital for Brain Injury Recovery
Athletes in some sports—such as hockey and football—are at an increased risk of head injuries due to sudden head and neck impacts. As a result, various professional and amateur sports leagues face lawsuits alleging they did not protect players from repeated head trauma. In such cases, however, the brain trauma is often linked to a concussion, so that when a concussion occurs patients are aware they should watch for ongoing signs of brain trauma.
With concerns about brain injury long-term effects in children, also comes concerns that brain injuries are not only linked to a concussion. In fact, in a 2016 study, youth who did not suffer a head injury still showed signs of changes to the white matter in their brain. Earlier in 2016, researchers suggested that brain injury long-term effects could be caused by only one traumatic brain event.
Now, researchers are learning that even young athletes are at risk of developing debilitating brain injuries often linked to professional sports.
Student-Athletes at Risk of CTE
Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) is a degenerative brain disease linked to athletes who have suffered multiple head injuries. It is linked to changes in the brain that are associated with loss of memory, impulse control issues, aggression, and dementia. Unfortunately, CTE can only be diagnosed post-mortem, in an autopsy or other examination. Patients who develop CTE often do not know they have it.
Zac Easter was a former student-athlete who had an idea of what was happening to his brain after playing football for much of his life. Before committing suicide in his mid-20s, Easter wrote his last wishes (as included in a GQ feature article). Among his last wishes were that his brain is donated to The Concussion Foundation.
Among the symptoms he endured were brain tremors, memory loss, and mood swings. In his final year playing football—his senior year in high school—Zac had suffered two concussions in two months and been sidelined, but prior to his final game, had passed the concussion protocol. During that final game, Zac had to be dragged off the field by two players, who told the team’s athletic trainer that he wasn’t right following a series of hits. He never played football again and wasn’t allowed to join the wrestling team.
“I want my brain donated because I don’t know what happened to me and I know the concussions had something to do with it,” Zac wrote, before taking his life in December 2015, less than six years after he graduated high school.
Soccer Added to List of Sports Linked to Brain Injury
It is not just football and hockey players who could be at risk of a traumatic brain injury. A recent study conducted by researchers from University College London and Britain’s National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery suggests that soccer, known in Britain as football, could be added to the list of sports that increase the risk of athletes developing dementia. Although the sample size of former football players was small, the six brains that were studied had signs of Alzheimer’s disease and four had chronic traumatic encephalopathy.
“This will support the need for larger-scale studies of a larger number of footballers who need to be followed long term, looking at various aspects in terms of their mental functions, imaging of the brain and also markers that might identify neurological damage,” said lead author Dr. Helen Ling.
In 2015, the U.S. Soccer Federation recommended players ages 10 and under not be allowed to head the ball after concerns were raised about the risk of head injuries and brain injury long-term effects.
As more research is done into brain injury long-term effects, the previous widespread belief that children easily recover from mild traumatic brain injury—or that long-term effects require multiple injuries—is being challenged. Unfortunately for some young athletes, research is coming too late to help them.