As a pediatric neuropsychiatrist and director of the Vermont Center for Children, Youth and Families at the University of Vermont (UVM) College of Medicine, Hudziak believes in the benefits of ice hockey and other sports for kids. Athletic activities help a young person build organizational skills, improve motor and emotional control, reduce anxiety and boost confidence.
Now, though, Hudziak is looking into the potential dangers of ice hockey for young athletes. He and UVM colleagues Matthew Albaugh, Ph.D., Catherine Orr, Ph.D., and Richard Watts, Ph.D., have published a groundbreaking study in the February issue of The Journal of Pediatrics that shows a relationship between concussions sustained by young ice hockey players and subtle changes in the cortex, the outer layer of the brain that controls higher-level reasoning and behavior.
Each year, more than 300,000 sports-related concussions (SRC) occur across all sports and all levels in the United States, according to a 2013 “Ice Hockey Summit II” report to which Hudziak and Boston University (BU) School of Medicine’s Ann McKee, M.D., contributed. The report’s authors advised the elimination of head hits from all levels of hockey, a change in body-checking policies and the elimination of fighting in all amateur and professional hockey. “Ice hockey SRC prevalence is high,” the report states. “Hockey players compete at high speeds as they mature, risking injury from intentional and accidental collisions, body checks, illegal on-ice activity and fighting.”
The UVM team used advanced imaging technology and cognitive testing to assess 29 Vermont ice hockey players between ages 14 and 23, some diagnosed with a sports-related concussion. As the severity of the athletes’ concussion symptoms increased, the researchers found, the cortex got thinner in areas where it should be dense at those players’ ages – areas that relate to attention control, memory, and emotion regulation.
“We believe that injury to a developing brain may be more severe than injury to an adult brain,” Hudziak says.
What the study indicates for the future health and function of an ice hockey player is unclear. The researchers hope to do further studies, ideally following the brains of these athletes over a couple of decades and factoring for their involvement and time in the sport as well as other influences, such as smoking and alcohol use.
“The concern is that what we are finding may be an early marker of brain damage,” Albaugh says. “Years of playing contact sports and repeatedly getting your head knocked around probably isn’t good for the brain, especially in young children whose brains are still maturing” he adds.