Youth football players may incur hundreds of repetitive head impacts (RHI) in one season. Our recent research suggests that exposure to RHI during a critical neurodevelopmental period prior to age 12 may lead to greater later-life mood, behavioral, and cognitive impairments. Here, we examine the relationship between age of first exposure (AFE) to RHI through tackle football and later-life corpus callosum (CC) microstructure using magnetic resonance diffusion tensor imaging (DTI). Forty retired National Football League (NFL) players, ages 40-65, were matched by age and divided into two groups based on their AFE to tackle football: before age 12 or at age 12 or older. Participants underwent DTI on a 3 Tesla Siemens (TIM-Verio) magnet. The whole CC and five subregions were defined and seeded using deterministic tractography. Dependent measures were fractional anisotropy (FA), trace, axial diffusivity, and radial diffusivity. Results showed that former NFL players in the AFE <12 group had significantly lower FA in anterior three CC regions and higher radial diffusivity in the most anterior CC region than those in the AFE ≥12 group. This is the first study to find a relationship between AFE to RHI and later-life CC microstructure. These results suggest that incurring RHI during critical periods of CC development may disrupt neurodevelopmental processes, including myelination, resulting in altered CC microstructure.
Keywords: American football; age at first exposure; corpus callosum; diffusion tensor imaging; repetitive head impacts.