Repetitive head impact (RHI) exposure in collision sports may contribute to adverse neurological outcomes in former players. In contrast to a concussion, or mild traumatic brain injury, "subconcussive" RHIs represent a more frequent and asymptomatic form of exposure. The neural network-level signatures characterizing subconcussive RHIs in youth collision-sport cohorts such as American Football are not known. Here, we used resting-state functional MRI to examine default mode network (DMN) functional connectivity (FC) following a single football season in youth players (n = 50, ages 8-14) without concussion. Football players demonstrated reduced FC across widespread DMN regions compared with non-collision sport controls at postseason but not preseason. In a subsample from the original cohort (n = 17), players revealed a negative change in FC between preseason and postseason and a positive and compensatory change in FC during the offseason across the majority of DMN regions. Lastly, significant FC changes, including between preseason and postseason and between in- and off-season, were specific to players at the upper end of the head impact frequency distribution. These findings represent initial evidence of network-level FC abnormalities following repetitive, non-concussive RHIs in youth football. Furthermore, the number of subconcussive RHIs proved to be a key factor influencing DMN FC.
Keywords: concussion; connectivity; fMRI; football; subconcussion; youth.
© 2021 The Authors. Human Brain Mapping published by Wiley Periodicals LLC.