Brain scan study spotlights risks of high school football, hockey

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(CBS) New research casts a harsh spotlight on high school athletics programs. It suggests that high school hockey and football players can suffer brain injury even from routine blows to the head sustained during games - in other words, even in the absence of concussions.

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The startling study is small and preliminary. But if confirmed, it could have "broad implications" for youth sports. So says study author Dr. Jeffrey Bazarian, associate professor of emergency medicine at the University of Rochester Medical Center and an expert on concussions.

"The challenge is to determine whether a critical number of head hits exists above which this type of brain injury appears, and then to get players and coaches to agree to limit play when an athlete approached that number," Bazarian said in a written statement.

For the study - published online in the journal Magnetic Resonance Imaging - Bazarian's team used a new statistical approach to analyze pre- and post-season images of the brains of nine student athletes who played during the 2006-2007 sports season.

The calculations revealed "small but noteworthy" changes in the brains of six student athletes who had not been diagnosed with a concussion that season. The changes were strongly correlated to the number of head hits and the symptoms experienced.

In an effort to corroborate the finding, Dr. Bazarian's team has lined up 10 University of Rochester football players to wear helmets equipped with sensors that record the number and intensity of head hits. At the end of the season, the data will be used to evaluate pre- and post-season brain scans.

The American Association of Neurological Surgeons has more on sports-related head injury.