Long-term neurological damage as a result of head trauma while playing sports is a major concern for football athletes today. Repetitive concussions have been linked to many neurological disorders. Recently, it has been reported that repetitive subconcussive events can be a significant source of accrued damage. Since football athletes can experience hundreds of subconcussive hits during a single season, it is of utmost importance to understand their effect on brain health in the short and long term. In this study, resting-state functional magnetic resonance imaging (rs-fMRI) was used to study changes in the default mode network (DMN) after repetitive subconcussive mild traumatic brain injury. Twenty-two high school American football athletes, clinically asymptomatic, were scanned using the rs-fMRI for a single season. Baseline scans were acquired before the start of the season, and follow-up scans were obtained during and after the season to track the potential changes in the DMN as a result of experienced trauma. Ten noncollision-sport athletes were scanned over two sessions as controls. Overall, football athletes had significantly different functional connectivity measures than controls for most of the year. The presence of this deviation of football athletes from their healthy peers even before the start of the season suggests a neurological change that has accumulated over the years of playing the sport. Football athletes also demonstrate short-term changes relative to their own baseline at the start of the season. Football athletes exhibited hyperconnectivity in the DMN compared to controls for most of the sessions, which indicates that, despite the absence of symptoms typically associated with concussion, the repetitive trauma accrued produced long-term brain changes compared to their healthy peers.
Keywords: concussion; default mode network; fMRI; football; functional connectivity; mTBI; resting state; subconcussive.