New study of football players shows concussions have long-term effects on inhibition

World renowned neuroscientist Adrian Owen and his team at Western University have developed a new strategy for predicting cognitive performance in Canadian university football players based on results from online surveys completed by the general population.

The most startling discovery from the study is that football players, like those in the general population who have suffered concussions, perform well on cognitive tests of most brain faculties, including memory and deductive reasoning, but fare poorly on tasks related to inhibition.

Clara Stafford

Clara Stafford

For the study, led by graduate student Clara Stafford, the Owen Lab analyzed results of 12 cognitive tests from an online survey of nearly 20,000 people in the general population to develop a baseline of data about concussions. They found that study participants who had suffered a concussion in their lives performed well on 11 of the 12 cognitive tests, but showed a reliable impairment in the test of inhibitory control.

The neuroscientists next used the results from the general population to successfully predict how 74 Canadian university football players would perform on the same set of tasks. The researchers did not request concussion history from the football players before they completed the survey.

Like the general population of post-concussion and non-concussed participants, the football players did not differ on 11 of the 12 cognitive tasks; however, on a specific task targeting inhibition, a very specific impairment was identified in the football players.

Adrian Owen

Adrian Owen

“If you have an impairment of inhibitory control, it means that you are likely to carry on doing something when perhaps you should have stopped,” explains Owen, Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience and Imaging at Western’s Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry. “For example, running an amber light when it may have been safer to stop, or on the field, it might mean a player would continue with a tackle long after they’ve heard the whistle to stop.”

The findings were published in The Journal of Neurology.

Owen, Stafford and their collaborators from Western’s Brain and Mind Institute and the Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry were originally interested to know whether concussions in the general population led to long-term cognitive deficits and thankfully, it’s not all bad news.

“Although we saw poorer performance on the task of inhibition, we did see very typical performances on tests of memory and deductive reasoning, which is very positive news for people who have sustained a concussion because it means that they don’t have widespread effects on their cognition over the long term,” says Stafford.

But perhaps the most remarkable finding from the study was the research team’s ability to predict cognitive abilities on certain tasks among the football players.

“We looked at the general population, asked them if they’d been concussed and then assessed their cognitive performance on a series of tasks,” says Owen, who also serves as Co-Director, Azrieli Program in Brain, Mind & Consciousness (CIFAR). “Then we used that information to correctly predict what we would see in the football players, whether or not they had ever actually been concussed and I think that’s absolutely amazing,”

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