The potential long term impact of concussions on the human brain has become a much needed but equally unwanted focus of the football industry. Unfortunately, little attention has been given to the damage on female athletes until a recent study.

New research findings were published by Penn Medicine neuroscientists in the journal Experimental Neurology. The research team from the University of Pennsylvania led by Dr. Douglas H. Smith, director of the Penn Center for Brain Injury and repair, focused their studies on the female axons’ structure and resilience, finding that they were smaller and had less, more fragile microtubules, which are the tracks transporting molecules up and down the axons.

The studies were done using rat and human cells and transmission electron microscopy, which ultimately showed that the nerve fibers found in women are leaner and more susceptible to breaking than in men. “The paper shows us that there is a fundamental, anatomical difference between male and female axons,” Smith said. The male axons show a greater number of microtubules, making their structure stronger than female axons.

When the head is traumatically impacted, axons stretch rapidly causing microtubules to rupture due to the strain. The high stress on the microtubule causes a molecular imbalance, which is believed to cause dizziness, headaches and loss of consciousness. This transport system, upon impact, can cause buildup of proteins that results in major issues, such as a self-destruct process that degrades the axon structure and compromises the nerve fibers. The researchers found that 24 hours after the test trauma, female axons had a significantly greater number of swellings and loss of calcium signaling function than male axons.

The 2017 study was presented at the American Academy of Neurological’s annual meeting. In sum, the study suggests there is a significant gender risk disparity in sports-related concussions of up to a 50 percent greater risk for women than men.

Studies will continue to analyze the biological differences in the responses to concussions in men and women. In the meantime, researchers aim to find potential treatment options to prevent microtubule breakdown, as well as restoring the brain functionalities of women after injuries.

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