One season of head-to-ball impact exposure alters functional connectivity in a central autonomic network

Neuroimage. 2020 Dec;223:117306. doi: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2020.117306. Epub 2020 Aug 28.


Repetitive head impacts represent a risk factor for neurological impairment in team-sport athletes. In the absence of symptoms, a physiological basis for acute injury has not been elucidated. A basic brain function that is disrupted after mild traumatic brain injury is the regulation of homeostasis, instantiated by activity across a specific set of brain regions that comprise a central autonomic network. We sought to relate head-to-ball impact exposure to changes in functional connectivity in a core set of central autonomic regions and then to determine the relation between changes in brain and changes in behavior, specifically cognitive control. Thirteen collegiate men's soccer players and eleven control athletes (golf, cross-country) underwent resting-state fMRI and behavioral testing before and after the season, and a core group of cortical, subcortical, and brainstem regions was selected to represent the central autonomic network. Head-to-ball impacts were recorded for each soccer player. Cognitive control was assessed using a Dot Probe Expectancy task. We observed that head-to-ball impact exposure was associated with diffuse increases in functional connectivity across a core CAN subnetwork. Increased functional connectivity between the left insula and left medial orbitofrontal cortex was associated with diminished proactive cognitive control after the season in those sustaining the greatest number of head-to-ball impacts. These findings encourage measures of autonomic physiology to monitor brain health in contact and collision sport athletes.

Keywords: Autonomic function; Cognitive control; Collegiate sports; Concussion; Head impact.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Athletes
  • Athletic Injuries / physiopathology
  • Autonomic Nervous System / physiopathology*
  • Brain / physiopathology*
  • Brain Concussion / physiopathology*
  • Brain Mapping
  • Executive Function
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Male
  • Neuropsychological Tests
  • Soccer / injuries
  • Young Adult