Developing Population-Specific Brain Atlases and Monitoring Repetitive Head Impacts for Early-to-Middle Adolescent Collision-Sport Athletes

2020-07-31T18:50:39Z (GMT) by Yukai Zou
Adolescent collision-sport athletes may be exposed to repetitive head impacts over years of practices and competitions without immediately observable symptoms. Despite the growing concerns, these athletes often continue play while at risk. Concrete objective measurements are desired to inform prompt and effective preventative strategies for this vulnerable population. However, adolescent brains are rapidly developing and the accrual of brain injury is often subtle. Prospective screening with sensitive biomarkers is challenging and requires advanced technologies, rigorous data processing, and the interdisciplinary expertise of engineering, neurobiology, and cognitive sciences.

To address the challenge, we first developed population-specific brain atlases to facilitate reproducible and meaningful statistical analyses. The atlases better characterized the neuroanatomy of early-to-middle adolescent (ages 13-19) collision-sport athletes, reduced deformation introduced during spatial normalization, and exhibited higher sensitivity in image analysis compared to standardized adult or age-appropriate brain templates. The atlases can be further applied to monitor the neuroanatomical trajectory and can serve as a coordinate reference system to retrospectively harmonize data collected from different sites and imaging acquisition parameters, facilitating group analysis at large scale.

Next, to assess whether the changes of white matter microstructure can be attributed to repetitive head impacts and are reflected by cognitive performance, we analysed the diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) data of high school men’s football and women's soccer across a single season, with accompanying data from head impact sensors and neurocognitive assessments. Within multiple brain regions, we observed significantly altered DTI metrics, both transiently over a season and chronically with more years of high school experience. For the football players, hits with peak translational acceleration over 37 g were sufficient to alter the distributions of DTI changes, and deficits in white matter microstructure correlated with poorer performance of anti-saccade task at one month post-season, suggesting increased vulnerability for inhibitory control. Monitoring repetitive head impacts thus provides a temporal profile for identifying at-risk individuals during the competitive season, informing prompt interventional strategies, therefore protecting the brain and cognitive health of early-to-middle adolescent collision-sport athletes in the long run.