Apr 21, 2017
Hockey on the Brain

Multiple studies have been conducted on the physical and neurodegenerative impacts of concussions on athletes. However, the idea that athlete concussions could also impact the mental and emotional state of former athletes had never been brought to light. With this in mind Brian Levine, PhD, a Neuropsychologist and Senior Scientist at the Rotman Research Institute at Baycrest Health Sciences in Toronto, began an ongoing study in 2010, which focused on the mental and emotional state of retired ice hockey players.

“There has been a lot of attention on repeated concussions and neurodegenerative disease, particularly in post-mortem samples of ex-athletes,” says Dr. Levine. “There is a need for more comprehensive assessment of mental and behavioral changes during life. This longitudinal study will allow us to track changes over time to better understand aging and brain health in retired professional athletes.”

The study included 33 hockey alumni as well as 18 males of the same age who have never been involved in contact sports. Within these participants, some have had previous trouble with cognitive and psychosocial functioning, while others have never complained of this before.

To collect data, the researchers conducted brain imaging studies and gave the participants questionnaires and cognitive tests. Findings showed that both the former hockey players and the males who had never played contact sports scored similar when it came to tests of attention and memory. However, the hockey alumni showed a slight decrease in terms of executive and intellectual functioning. Researchers found that the decline in this functioning related directly to the number of concussions that the athletes had sustained in their careers. The retired athletes also reported higher levels of emotional, behavioral, and cognitive challenges on the questionnaire than those who had never been involved in a contact sport.

“When this study began, we spent several months setting up the right series of tests to evaluate brain health in retired ice hockey players,” says Carrie Esopenko, PhD, a former post-doctoral fellow at the Rotman Research Institute who managed the study. “This study represents one of the most comprehensive evaluations that’s ever been done in this area.”

For former athletes like Scott Thornton, a player in the NHL for 17 seasons, this study could mean the answer to concerns about his memory function, as well as create a conversation about long-term effects of head injuries where there hadn’t been one before.

“My hope is that this longitudinal study will help all hockey players and everyone involved in the game have open and honest conversations about the impact of head traumas,” says Thornton. “Hockey is a very physical sport, and a shoulder or leg injury is very different from a hit to the head. After an injury, we would often get back on the ice and continue to play, but it’s important for everyone involved with the game to respect the consequences of these types of decisions.”

The study will continue with more research being done on the collected brain imaging data. Players will also continue to be tested every four years and will have the option to donate their brains to science after death in order to confirm potential brain diseases.

Photo by Classenc

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