Memory problems are one of the most common symptoms of sport-related mild traumatic brain injury (MTBI), known as concussion. Surprisingly, little research has examined spatial memory in concussed athletes given its importance in athletic environments. Here, we combine functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) with a virtual reality (VR) paradigm designed to investigate the possibility of residual functional deficits in recently concussed but asymptomatic individuals. Specifically, we report performance of spatial memory navigation tasks in a VR environment and fMRI data in 15 athletes suffering from MTBI and 15 neurologically normal, athletically active age matched controls. No differences in performance were observed between these two groups of subjects in terms of success rate (94 and 92%) and time to complete the spatial memory navigation tasks (mean = 19.5 and 19.7 s). Whole brain analysis revealed that similar brain activation patterns were observed during both encoding and retrieval among the groups. However, concussed athletes showed larger cortical networks with additional increases in activity outside of the shared region of interest (ROI) during encoding. Quantitative analysis of blood oxygen level dependent (BOLD) signal revealed that concussed individuals had a significantly larger cluster size during encoding at parietal cortex, right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, and right hippocampus. In addition, there was a significantly larger BOLD signal percent change at the right hippocampus. Neither cluster size nor BOLD signal percent change at shared ROIs was different between groups during retrieval. These major findings are discussed with respect to current hypotheses regarding the neural mechanism responsible for alteration of brain functions in a clinical setting.
Keywords: Concussion; Spatial memory; Spatial navigation; Virtual reality; fMRI.