Playing ruby can cause subtle brain damage in young people after just three matches, a Canadian University study has found.

Changes after knocks to the head were found in white and grey matter of the brain which regulate fear, anger and pleasure.

The study is the latest in a wide body of evidence that blows to the head, though not severe enough to cause concussion, can have lasting and damaging effects.

In recent years we have learned more about links between contact sports like rugby and neurological damage, yet the researchers found that effects can be seen after just three matches.

“There is no longer a debate that when an athlete is diagnosed with a concussion caused by a sharp blow or a fall, there is a chance it may contribute to brain changes that could either be temporary or permanent,” said Dr Ravi Menon, of Western University in Canada.

“But what are the effects of the smaller jolts and impacts that come with playing a contact sport? “Our study found they may lead to subtle changes in the brains of otherwise healthy, symptom-free athletes.”

They studied 101 female college athletes between 18 and 23 over a number of years, some of which played rugby while the other did rowing or swimming.

MRI scans on the rugby players found abnormalities in the white matter of their brains which contained nerve fibres linking areas that govern emotions, becoming more severe over time in some cases.

The brain stem, which sends messages to the rest of the body, changed in some athletes between the in and off-seasons of the sport.

Memory and visual processing were also seen to experience change, while the brain scans of the swimmers and rowers were normal.

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