A new study has demonstrated that adolescents are more vulnerable to sport-related concussion, compared with adults or children. The study in Brain Injury , by neuropsychologist Dave Ellemberg of the Université de Montréal, is the first of its kind to measure the impact of sport-related concussions on children and to compare the consequences of the trauma on three different age groups, and shows that concussion predominantly affects the working memory, the brain function that processes and stores short-term information and that is vital for activities like reading and mental arithmetics.

Dr. Ellemberg, professor at the university’s Department of Kinesiology, says:

“The frontal regions of the brain are more vulnerable to concussions. These areas oversee executive functions responsible for planning, organizing and managing information. During adolescence, these functions are developing rapidly which makes them more fragile to stress and trauma.”

The study also revealed that adolescents, adults and children, who experience a concussion for the first time, will suffer neurophysiological side effects that can last between six months to one year. Concussion does not only affect a person’s working memory, but also their ability to sustain attention and focus.

Scientists from Toronto University explained that children recover much more slowly from second or third concussions, compared to those with a first concussion. They reported their findings in the journal Pedatrics (June 2013 issue).

Ellemberg states:

“For a long time, we believed that the brain of a child was more plastic and could therefore better recover from an accident or stress. In recent years, we’ve realized that quite to the contrary, a child’s brain is more vulnerable. Our research shows that children are as afflicted as adults by a concussion.”

The study was based on electrophysiological evaluation techniques that are better in targeting chronic side effects. The researchers involved 96 athletes in their study, of which a third were adults, with the other two groups being split into children, aged between 9 and 12 years, and those between 13 and 16 years.

Following a traditional neuropsychological test used by the National Hockey League, the researchers compared the participants’ results with those obtained from electrophysiology that measured working memory, attention and inhibition, whilst performing computerized tasks.

Ellemberg declares:

“The traditional tests are very efficient to determine the immediate impacts of concussions, but aren’t as reliable as electrophysiology to pick up on long-term side effects. Electrophysiology allows us to see the response from the athlete and from his or her neurons, which are sometimes independent from one another. Therefore, certain participants showed weakness during certain electrophysiological tasks that the neuropsychological tests hadn’t picked up on.”

Football players who relapse after months of recovery after a concussion continue to be the worry of many fans and initiate discussions about the trauma. These athletes are doing relatively well, says Ellemberg:

“Let’s not forget that professional players have the luxury of taking months to recover – a luxury that a child or adolescent cannot afford. After a concussion we impose cognitive rest, meaning no school, no television, no video games, and physical rest as well. This absence combined with the potentially chronic impact on the working memory can handicap a child’s future.”

These findings force scientists to re-assess their understanding of sport-related concussions.

Ellemberg concludes:

“The situation is more serious than we think. Contrarily to professional athletes, youngsters don’t have a medical doctor and a protocol in place for becoming active again. However, for me, their brain is more important than the brain of a famous football player. It needs to be protected with the right diagnostic tools and an adapted framework.

Obviously, concussions are a part of sport, but we can reduce their occurrence by limiting dangerous situations. Youngsters must pursue their activities in a secure environment where people know how to treat concussions.”

Written by Petra Rattue