SURREY, B.C. -- Neuroscientists at Simon Fraser University have found a link between brain impairment and repetitive hits in youth hockey.

SFU researchers are working in partnership with Mayo Clinic Orthopedics and Sports Medicine in Rochester, Minnesota, in a long-term study focused on concussions in Canada. In the first phase of the study, they monitored the brain function of Junior A hockey players in Minnesota during the playing season. They’re now in the second phase of the study, which replicates phase one, but with younger, Bantam hockey players.

The latest findings were published in the peer-reviewed journal Brain Communications.

“What we found was that players had significant changes in their brain vital signs over the course of the season, and these changes were directly correlated to the number of head impacts each player received,” says Dr. Shaun Fickling, the lead author of the study.

Fickling and his team tested players’ cognitive brain function using NeuroCatch, a medical device developed in B.C. Players place the device over their heads rinkside, for real-time information on their brain activity.

“It’s a five-minute scan,” says Dr. Ryan D’Arcy, a neuroscientist and co-creator of the NeuroCatch. “After five minutes, just like you’d have your blood pressure in a doctor’s office, you’ll have your brain vital signs.”

When monitoring bantam hockey players, aged 14 and under, minor hits and body checks – which are routine during a hockey game -- were found to hinder their brain activity. The head impacts are referred to as subconcussions. The hits weren’t big enough to cause a conventional concussion, but can create similar levels of brain impairment as they accumulate.

“These impacts could add up over time and cause something more serious, like changes in dementia, or mental health and suicide,” says D’Arcy.

The findings suggest concussions should be viewed on a spectrum, with varying degrees of harm to the brain, rather than a singular injury you either have or don’t have. Researchers say brain impairment detected by the NeuroCatch technology can then allow medical specialists to tailor adequate treatment for the affected athletes.

“To be able to measure these changes in brain function will allow us to better manage players’ careers and their injury trajectories as well,” says Fickling. “We really want to make sure you allow not just athletes, but people, the required time to recover before going back to activity, and that’s really the key.”

But, you can’t treat what you can’t measure, D’Arcy explains. Now, the focus is on making the Health Canada approved NeuroCatch available to as many athletes as possible, at all skill levels.

“We’re getting them in hockey rinks, fields, clinics and hospitals throughout our country and the U.S. at the moment.”

The research team intends to analyze other contact sports, as the multi-year study continues.