Anyone who went to a large state university with a famous football team knows that there were often special courses given to the players. Many non-playing students tried to get into these classes, since they were rumored to be easier. Now a new study shows why: Head impacts experienced during contact sports such as football and hockey may worsen some college athletes’ ability to acquire new information

This new study involved college athletes at three Division I schools and compared 214 athletes in contact sports to 45 athletes in non-contact sports such as track, crew and Nordic skiing at the beginning and at the end of their seasons. The contact sport athletes wore special helmets that recorded the acceleration speed and other data at the time of any head impact. The contact sport athletes experienced an average of 469 head impacts during the season. And researchers think that It’s possible that some people may be genetically more sensitive to head impacts than others. NOTE: Subscribers can still listen to both of these shows. 

All of the athletes took tests of thinking and memory skills before and after the season. A total of 45 contact sport athletes and 55 non-contact sport athletes from one of the schools also took an additional set of tests of concentration, working memory and other skills. Researcher Thomas W. McAllister says, "The good news is that overall there were few differences in the test results between the athletes in contact sports and the athletes in non-contact sports, but we did find that a higher percentage of the contact sport athletes had lower scores than would have been predicted after the season on a measure of new learning than the non-contact sport athletes.

"These results are somewhat reassuring, given the recent heightened concern about the potential negative effects of these sports. Nevertheless, the findings do suggest that repetitive head impacts may have a negative effect on some athletes."

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