Home > Memory > A Concussion may take you out of the game, but what does it mean for your working memory capacity?

A Concussion may take you out of the game, but what does it mean for your working memory capacity?

In the world of athletics, there has been a significant increase of awareness and concern around concussions. With contact sports, athletes are vulnerable to sports-related concussions of varying degrees. Athletic trainers are very sensitive when it comes to diagnosing a concussion, given that any injury to the brain is substantial and should not be overlooked. As an athlete myself, I have witnessed many teammates experience concussions, who have not been able to participate in any sort of physical activity. If concussions have such an impact on an individual’s athletics, one may suspect that such repercussions extend to other aspects of an individual’s life. This article further investigates the impact of sports-related head contacts on working memory capacity.

Working Memory refers to a short-term store that is relevant to the performance of a cognitive task in an activated state. Working memory is crucial to overall cognitive ability and requires a level of attention that ensures memory will be maintained in spite of interference or distractions. Working memory becomes important for an athlete’s optimal performance and physical safety because he or she must focus his/her attention on the game and likewise, maintain task relevant information during distracting events that happen on the field.

Mayers et. al (2011) created an experiment in order to measure working memory capacity among a group of collegiate athletes and to compare WMC of athletes competing in head-contact-prone sports with individuals who are unsusceptible to repeated head contacts. This study differed form previous studies on concussion in that it focused on the relationship between a history of and/or propensity to athletic concussion in relation to current WMC function. Mayers et al. (2011) an automated operation span (AOSPAN) test to compare WMC between: student athletes competing in head-contact-prone sports (football, soccer)- HC cohort; student athletes competing in non-head-contact-prone sports (baseball, softball, volleyball, swimming, and track)- NHC cohort; and non-athlete students. Their sample of collegiate athletes was selected from American University.

The AOSPAN administered presented the subjects with a series of simple mathematical problems. As soon as the problem was solved, the computer generated a brief presentation of a letter on the computer screen. After a sequence of math problems, which generated a subsequent series of letters, the subject was prompted to correctly submit the viewed letters in order. This was used to test each subjects WMC under the assumption that working memory was required to alternate between math and memory portions of the task. Higher scores indicated better WMC. The subjects were also asked to provide information regarding their history of diagnosed concussions in order to asses the possible effect of past sports-related head injuries on current WMC.

Mayers et. al found that there were no significant differences in AOSPAN scores, and therefore WMC, between head-contact-prone athletes, non-head-contact prone athletes, and non-athletes as they had suspected. What they did find was that AOSPAN scores were higher in athletes that played football and volleyball because the working memory demands of these two sports are the highest. Football and Volleyball are the two sports that use coded verbal signals that are “called” during each offensive and defensive sequence and may be changed at any moment. This requires a certain level of attention and demands the use of working memory in order to perform the proper movement as a contribution to the overall play.

It is obvious from this article that working memory is pertinent to athletic competition. While the findings of the effects of concussions on working memory capacity showed no significance, it is important to recognize the difficulty that arises when investigating concussions. It is difficult to find a large sample size given that only so many people have been diagnosed with concussions, in addition to the fact that concussions have recently come to the forefront of awareness. Additionally, the severity of each concussion varies among individuals and consequently the effects on WMC may only be significant at a certain level of severity. Another issue with this experiment in particular is that most of the subjects were studied months to years after sustaining their injuries, and as a result any healing may take away from identifying working memory consequences.



Mayers, Lester B. et al (2011). Working memory capacity among collegiate student athletes: Effects of sport-related head contacts, concussions, and working memory demands. Journal of Clinical and Experimental Neuropsychology. Pleasantville, NY: Psychology Press.

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  1. May 2nd, 2013 at 13:51 | #1

    I thought these findings were interesting and really relevant to my life. As a skier, I have had 2 really bad concussions which put me out for months on end. I am curious to see whether or not these findings would change if either the amount of concussions sustained increased, or the time between when an athlete was cleared to play again after their concussion and when the experiment was administered decreased. I would also be curious as to whether or not there are any findings of effects on longer term memory or semantic memory. I know when I sustained my last concussion, I found it more difficult to remember names even after I was cleared to return to skiing. It would be interesting to see if concussions at all play a role in changing the processing of either semantic or episodic memory.

  2. May 12th, 2013 at 18:42 | #2

    I found the findings of this article very intriguing. Throughout elementary, middle, and high school, I was a student athlete and was fortunate enough to never sustain a concussion but I had a friend who sustained a pretty bad one and it took her a while before she could remember details shortly after they were presented to her.
    While reading this article, I was particularly interested by the finding that student athletes who played football and volleyball had higher AOSPAN scores. I wonder whether student athletes with attention deficit disorders, who play football and/ or volleyball, perform differently on Automated Operation Span Test. Do these individuals perform more like individuals who don’t play sports or those who play sports that don’t require as many verbal codes? I also wonder whether the recovery time for athletes who have suffered from concussions and have attention deficit disorders differs from those of athletes without attention deficit disorders.

  3. tojama
    May 13th, 2013 at 13:39 | #3

    Even though I have not personally sustained an injury from sports, specifically a concussion, I have had many friends and family members who have. My sister played volleyball in high school and sustained a pretty bad concussion her junior year. This injury caused her to to not be able to participate for the rest of the season. What I never thought about before is how the concussion effected her daily activities. Her doctor told her to not to be active for some time but I now remember other things she had difficulty with. She was very forgetful for quite some time after her injury and there were events and names that she would completely forget sometimes. I wonder if the results would be the same if she would have been tested and if she would have performed any differently on the Automated Operation Span Test. I also think its important to take into account the amount of time it took for the participants who had sustained an injury to heal and if that had any correlation with the time they had the Automated Operation Span Task.

  4. May 13th, 2013 at 13:55 | #4

    I found it interesting that the findings showed no significant impairment on working memory for those athletes participating in head-contact prone sports. I wonder, then, if there are other areas of memory (aside from working memory) that are generally impaired for ahtletes that participate in the sports that often result in more head-to-head contact. It would be interesting to run a similar experiment and use a battery of tests assessing many differernt types of both declarative and non-declarative memory. Doing this type of experiment with participants divided into conditions based on the number, severity, or recency of concussions they have sustained might also lead to some results not shown in this study.

  5. May 16th, 2013 at 15:22 | #5

    Having had three concussions diagnosed in the past I found this post very interesting, and I am very glad to hear that they have no significant effects on working memory. I would be curious as to whether the same results were true in all memory tasks, and if concussions had more effects on long term memory or memory decline in the future. Concussions (I believe) are shown to result in damaged short term memory after the event and I am curious if they have any recurring effects on episodic memory retention depending on the severity of the injury. You touched on this in your conclusion, and I would be curious to know if the frequency and severity of these types of head injuries result in different impairments in various types of memory over time.

  6. May 17th, 2013 at 20:06 | #6

    It was kind of a relief to read that concussions did not seem to affect working memory in athletes. There are many negative side-effects to concussions that I would have just assumed that working memory would be affected as well. Athletes are constantly using working memory while playing, and as a softball player I am lucky that we very rarely experience concussions because of the limited contact that we have with others. However, I have friends on more contact-driven sports who have experienced multiple concussions and it is nice to know that while concussions may affect other pieces of playing the game, their working memory is still intact.

  7. May 18th, 2013 at 21:18 | #7

    I found this article particularly interesting and relevant to me, as I have witnessed the severity of concussions throughout my time playing hockey. Having seen many of my close friends, luckily never me, deal with the symptoms of concussions has truly raised my awareness not only to concussions but also head injuries in general. Because of this, I find it interesting that this article did not reflect any impact on WMC for individuals participating in contact sports. Clearly concussions have a serious impact, which raises the question which part of the brain or which aspect of memory is being affected by concussions. As you stated, concussions have just recently stepped into the limelight, so the data that has been collected is very limited and also difficult to gather due to the nature of these injuries. I believe it would be very beneficial for studies to be done on professional athletes, who are diagnosed with concussions. Clearly owners and organizations have significant investments in these individuals, making the diagnosis all the more critical, and, because of this, I believe it would be a good place to start further research in this field. Also, these athletes compete at the highest levels, making me believe their WMC for their given sport is very high, allowing them to be good subjects for study. I really liked this article, it discussed an interesting and current topic, which I think still has a lot of room for further research.

  8. May 19th, 2013 at 01:21 | #8

    As you mentioned in your response, it would be interesting to see these studies done at intervals closer to the injury itself. Also, you said that there was no difference between the groups, but you never talked about those within the head-contact prone group who has sustained multiple concussions compared to those who had not. It might have been the same result, but I was unclear on that point. I am surprised at the result of this study, and would be interested to see studies looking further into the ideas of building Working memory capacity through both complex sports but also other activities. The student we discussed in class who trained himself up to remember a string of up to 86 numbers, much greater than the normal 5-9, intrigued me. With practice, what are the limitations of Working memory, and what does improving it mean for long term memory? Would it greatly improve memory for those items, or would it in fact have a negligible or even negative effect.

  9. October 26th, 2013 at 16:59 | #9

    To echo was William posted above, I agree that it would be more interesting to see the studies conducted closer to the concussion onset. I think this article really only demonstrates the LONG-TERM consequences of concussions on working memory, or lack thereof. However, I am not convinced that there are NO consequences on working memory from a concussion after witnessing several of my teammates at the collegiate level sustain serious concussions. Another interesting factor to note is that concussions are so difficult to diagnose and deal with because there is such a wide variety of symptoms and levels of severity to these injuries. I find it hard to believe that this vast array of differences in injury severity doesn’t present statistical issues in evaluating data conducted on these athletes because the injuries seem so individualized at times.

  10. November 25th, 2013 at 16:09 | #10

    As these results were very surprising, I was not reassured at all. I would still be hesitant to play a sport with high-concussion risk whether or not I was told that my working memory would not be affected. With that said, I do wonder how professional volleyball and football players would rank on these measures. They are obviously further along in their careers, meaning that they are more skilled in their sport. But also, they have experienced more risks for concussions and potentially more actual concussions as well, which may or may not have been diagnosed. The argument could also be made that if an athlete has reached the professional level, s/he was not previously derailed from his/her career by diagnosed concussions, so no negative effects will be seen on working memory. Professional athletes would then be a very interesting group for comparison of this experiment’s results.

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