Despite negative neuroimaging findings using traditional neuroimaging methods such as MRI and CT, sports-related concussions have been shown to cause neurometabolic changes in both the acute and subacute phases of head injury. However, no prospective clinical study has used an independent physician-observer design in the monitoring of these changes. The objective of this study was to evaluate the effects of repetitive concussive and sub-concussive head impacts on neurometabolic concentrations in a prospective study of two Canadian Interuniversity Sports (CIS) ice hockey teams using MR spectroscopy (MRS).
Forty-five ice hockey players (25 men and 20 women) participated in this study. All participants underwent pre- and postseason MRI, including spectroscopy imaging, using a 3-T MRI machine. The linear combination model was used to quantify the following ratios: glutamate/creatine-phosphocreatine (Cr), myoinositol/Cr, and N-acetylaspartate (NAA)/Cr. Individuals sustaining a medically diagnosed concussion were sent for MRI at 72 hours, 2 weeks, and 2 months after injury.
No statistically significant differences were observed between athletes who were diagnosed with a concussion and athletes who were not clinically diagnosed as sustaining a concussion. Although no statistically significant longitudinal metabolic changes were observed among athletes who were diagnosed with a concussion, the results demonstrated a predictable pattern of initial impairment, followed by a gradual return to ratios that were similar to, but lower than, baseline ratios. No significant pre- to postseason changes were demonstrated among men who were not observed to sustain a concussion. However, a substantively significant decrease in the NAA/Cr ratio was noted among the female hockey players (t(13) = 2.58, p = 0.02, η2 = 0.34).
A key finding in this study, from the standpoint of future research design, is the demonstration of substantively significant metabolic changes among the players who were not diagnosed with a concussion. In addition, it may explain why there are few statistically significant differences demonstrated between players who were diagnosed with a concussion and players who were not diagnosed with a concussion (that is, the potency of the independent variable was diminished by the fact that the group of players not diagnosed with a concussion might be better described as a subgroup of the players who may have sustained a concussion but were not observed and diagnosed with a concussion). This result suggests that definitions of concussion may need to be revisited within sports with high levels of repetitive subconcussive head impacts. Future analysis of these data will examine the relationships between the modes of MRI (diffusion tensor imaging, MRS, and susceptibility-weighted MR imaging) used in this study, along with other more sensitive evaluative techniques. This type of intermodal comparison may improve the identification of concussions that were previously dependent on the unreliable self-reporting of recognized concussion symptomatology by the athlete or on poorly validated neuropsychological tests.