Teenage brains may be more vulnerable to lasting injury

Teen girls playing soccer

Young athletes who experience concussions may need to wait longer than currently recommended before getting ‘back in the game’ because of the unique brain developmental stage of adolescence, according to new research. The study, published in the Journal of Neurotrauma, shows that current adult-based standards for assessing the effects of concussions and length of time to recovery may be inadequate for adolescents.

Researchers led by Dr. Naznin Virji-Babul, an assistant professor in the Department of Physical Therapy, UBC Faculty of Medicine, studied adolescent athletes who had a sports-related concussion within the past three months and healthy adolescent athletes from the Vancouver Whitecaps FC Residency program.   

“We found that there are changes in brain networks after concussion, specifically in the area of the brain responsible for executive functions, such as memory, reasoning, and attention,” says Dr. Virji-Babul. “We’ve been able to detect changes in teens’ brains that shows that the brain is working harder after a concussion. Importantly, there was a correlation between increased brain activity and symptoms such as cognitive fatigue and distractibility.”

Using electroencephalography (EEG), the brain activity of adolescents who’d had a concussion was recorded. Although the researchers did not see changes in the overall structure of how the brain is organized, they observed changes in local areas within the brain, specifically in the dorsal prefrontal cortex, which controls executive function, such as working memory, abstract reasoning, and planning and is particularly important in the teenage years as it develops. They found that connectivity in the brain was still increased two to three months after the concussion.

The risk of concussion in youth is particularly concerning, as the brain is still developing throughout adolescence and is more susceptible to lasting injury. “Our results add to the findings that the teenage brain may be more vulnerable to brain injury. Our hope is that this approach may be useful in identifying those at risk for future injury,” Dr. Virji-Babul says.

CITATION

Virji-Babul Naznin, Hilderman Courtney G.E., Makan Nadia, Liu Aiping, Smith-Forrester Jenna, Franks Chris, and Wang Z.J. Changes in Functional Brain Networks following Sports-Related Concussion in Adolescents. Journal of Neurotrauma. Epub ahead of print. doi:10.1089/neu.2014.3450.