Pre-adolescent children who have suffered sports-related concussions have impaired brain function two years after injury, according to a small study.

PT_news-01Investigators with the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign published the results Nov. 26 on the website of the International Journal of Psychophysiology.

According to the CDC, in 2009 nearly 250,000 children and teens were treated in EDs for sports- and recreation-related traumatic brain injury including concussion in the U.S. While organized sports at all levels have implemented safety protocols for preventing and treating head injuries, most pediatric concussions still result from athletic activities.

Research studying the long-term effects of childhood concussions is limited. Several researchers claim only a small portion of children have developmental deficits after a concussion. However, other reports indicate more serious consequences of head injury, including long-term cognitive deficits.

“Our data indicate that children who sustain a concussion demonstrate deficits in brain function and cognitive performance approximately two years after injury, relative to others their age who do not have a history of mild traumatic brain injury,” Charles Hillman, PhD, University of Illinois kinesiology and community health professor, said in a news release. Hillman, who also is affiliated with the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology, led the research with R. Davis Moore, PhD, a recent U of I graduate and a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Montreal.

The study included 30 children, ages 8-10, who are active in athletic activities. Fifteen of the children were recruited two years after a sports-related concussion, and the remaining children had no history of concussion.

The researchers assessed the children’s ability to update and maintain memory, and pay attention and inhibit responses when instructed to do so. The team also analyzed electrical signals in the brain while the children performed some of these cognitive tests. With the brain signals, they were able to measure how each child’s brain performed the tests.

Compared with children in the control group, those with a history of concussion performed worse on tests of working memory, attention and impulse control, results showed. This impaired performance also was reflected in differences in the electric signals in the injured children’s brains, researchers found. Among the children with a history of concussion, those who were injured earlier in life had the largest deficits, Moore said in the release.

The researchers emphasize the potential for lifelong academic and vocational consequences for children who sustain concussions early in life, Moore said in the release.

“These data are an important first step toward understanding sustained changes in brain function and cognition that occur following childhood concussion,” Hillman said in the release. “Our study suggests the need to find ways to improve cognitive and brain health following a head injury, in an effort to improve lifelong brain health and effective functioning.”

Study abstract: