Any parent who has raised a child to adulthood knows the teenage brain is, well, different. This anecdotal evidence continues to be backed by research, including a recent study that shows teens are more vulnerable to the long-term effects of head injury.
The study findings, published in the journal Brain Injury, followed 96 male athletes ages 9 through 26, half of whom had a diagnosed concussion in the past year.
Using a battery of memory, attention, and motor tests and EEGs, the researchers found that all of the concussed athletes showed reduced working memory. But the adolescents had the most cognitive impairment, even if months had passed since their injury and they reported feeling fine.
The results don’t surprise Yolanda Holler, MD, a pediatric neurologist and medical director of the Brain Injury Program at Akron Children’s Hospital.
“The brain continues to mature into the early 20s,” she said. “During adolescence, the brain is still making connections and becoming more organized. There is a lot of pruning, in which the brain gets rid of information that is no longer needed.”
Much of this activity takes place in the top front of the head – the region where the all-important executive functions are forming – and this is also where teens are likely to suffer a concussion while playing football, soccer, hockey, rugby and other contact sports.
This study focuses solely on boys and young men but Dr. Holler also sees many girls and young women in her head injury clinic.
Female athletes may even be more at risk for head injuries because their necks are not as strong and thus not as able to protect the head from a blow.
This study is a good reminder for parents: If your child suffers any type of head injury, don’t hesitate to seek an evaluation and treatment.
And don’t assume that when the physical symptoms of concussion (dizziness, headaches) are gone, that the child is 100 percent. More subtle changes in cognition, such as memory problems, inability to multi-task, difficulty retrieving information recently learned, and mood changes, can last for weeks, months and even years.
Ongoing follow-up with a pediatric neurologist – and possibly a neuropsychologist – is especially important for these patients as they may need documentation to receive accommodations in school and should not be returning to their sport without medical clearance.