Microstructural alterations of cortical and deep gray matter over a season of high school football revealed by diffusion kurtosis imaging

Neurobiol Dis. 2018 Nov:119:79-87. doi: 10.1016/j.nbd.2018.07.020. Epub 2018 Jul 23.


Objectives: To probe microstructural changes that are associated with subconcussive head impact exposure in deep and cortical gray matter of high school football players over a single season.

Methods: Players underwent diffusion kurtosis imaging (DKI) and quantitative susceptibility mapping (QSM) scans. Head impact data was recorded. Association between parametric changes and frequency of frontal head impact was assessed.

Results: In deep gray matter, significant decreases in mean kurtosis (MK) and increases in mean diffusivity (MD) over the season were observed in the thalamus and putamen. Correlations between changes in DKI metrics and frequency of frontal impacts were observed in the putamen and caudate. In cortical gray matter, decreases in MK were observed in regions including the pars triangularis and inferior parietal. In addition, increases in MD were observed in the rostral middle frontal cortices. Negative correlations between MK and frequency of frontal impacts were observed in the posterior part of the brain including the pericalcarine, lingual and middle temporal cortices. Magnetic susceptibility values exhibited no significant difference or correlation, suggesting these diffusion changes common within the group may not be associated with iron-related mechanisms.

Conclusion: Microstructural alterations over the season and correlations with head impacts were captured by DKI metrics, which suggested that DKI imaging of gray matter may yield valuable biomarkers for evaluating brain injuries associated with subconcussive head impact. Findings of associations between frontal impacts and changes in posterior cortical gray matter also indicated that contrecoup injury rather than coup injury might be the dominant mechanism underlying the observed microstructural alterations.

Advances in knowledge: Significant microstructural changes, as reflected by DKI metrics, in cortical gray matter such as the rostral middle frontal cortices, and in deep gray matter such as the thalamus were observed in high school football players over the course of a single season without clinically diagnosed concussion. QSM showed no evidence of iron-related changes in the observed subconcussive brain injuries. The detected microstructural changes in cortical and deep gray matter correlated with frequency of subconcussive head impacts.

Implications for patient care: DKI may yield valuable biomarkers for evaluating the severity of brain injuries associated with subconcussive head impacts in contact sport athletes.

Keywords: Diffusion kurtosis imaging (DKI); Football; Gray matter; Head impact; Quantitative susceptibility mapping (QSM).

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Brain Concussion / diagnostic imaging*
  • Cerebral Cortex / diagnostic imaging*
  • Cohort Studies
  • Diffusion Tensor Imaging* / trends
  • Football / injuries*
  • Football / trends
  • Gray Matter / diagnostic imaging*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Putamen / diagnostic imaging
  • Seasons*
  • Thalamus / diagnostic imaging