Brains of young hockey players can show signs of change after one season on the ice, according to UBC Okanagan neuroscientist

November 5, 2013

OTTAWA, November 5th, 2013 – Many minor and junior league hockey players are on their local ice this season, mimicking the moves of their favourite hockey heroes. Along with their slight-of-hand goals comes the occasional slip on the rink or bash against the boards.

It is precisely these minor bumps that can cause harm to the brains of young hockey players, says Paul Van Donkelaar, a CFI-funded motor neuroscientist and leader of the Integrative Sports Concussion Research Group at the University of British Columbia Okanagan Campus. “The act of playing hockey for a season is enough to cause changes in a young person’s brain,” says Van Donkelaar. “We’re seeing neuropsychological disruption to brain function after only five months which is not good for these young players.”

Van Donkelaar says concussions are a “neuropathological insult to the brain” which occurs after a direct impact to the head or a hit to another part of the body that then ricochets through the brain. “The tissue of the brain has been damaged or disrupted in its ability to perform after a concussion,” says Van Donkelaar. “You’ll see symptoms such as headaches, dizziness and nausea that are related to injured neurons not being able to perform the way they normally would.”

In his research lab, Van Donkelaar scans hockey players in their early to late teens using tools that allow him to visualize, among other things, blood flow in the brain following a concussion. The data he and his team glean from their battery of tests allow them to determine the effect of a concussion on brain matter, motor skills and behaviour.

The current sideline and clinical tests tend to be “quick and dirty” according to Van Donkelaar. The diagnostic techniques usually involve quizzes that test short-term memory, the results of which give coaches and sports physicians a rough estimate of the severity of a hit. The more confused or slow to respond, the greater the odds a player’s brain has been damaged. In most cases, says Van Donkelaar, many athletes are cleared to return to the hockey rink, football field or soccer pitch in a matter of minutes, hours or days.

However, the results of one of Van Donkelaar’s most recent studies suggests a young hockey player’s neurological ability and motor skills remain compromised for up to two months after a rough and tumble event on the ice. His test is modelled along the lines of a video game, much like Space Invaders, where participants shoot a target in different corners of a computer screen using buttons aligned with the upper or lower part of the screen. The challenge is whether they can successfully shoot targets in advanced levels when their joystick controls are rendered topsy-turvy — up shoots down and down shoots up. The degree of a participant’s delayed response gives Van Donkelaar a far more accurate sense of how long a concussion may last.

Van Donkelaar is interested in working with industry partners to refine his tests for sideline use, possibly in the form of a tablet app that could quickly diagnose the severity of a concussion of a young player.

In the meantime, he says parents and coaches are far more aware of the risks of concussions today than they ever have been before and often take the appropriate steps to protect their young players. The challenge many of them face, says Van Donkelaar, is making sense of the fire hose of information that has been published in scientific literature and mainstream media over the past few years. He suggests using online resources like which filters the information to give parents, coaches and health professionals everything they really need to know about concussions. But he also recommends those putting their kids on the ice trust their guts. “Be cautious and get as informed and educated as you can,” says Van Donkelaar. “If it doesn’t feel right or if your child gets injured, pull them out and find another sport.”

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