Soccer Ball “Heading” May Lead To Brain Injury
Researchers at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine have just published a study in the peer-reviewed journal Radiology showing that soccer players who “head” the ball with high frequency show abnormalities in the white matter of their brains and poorer memory scores on cognitive tests.
According to the researchers, these results are not explained by a history of concussion – players who headed the ball frequently showed symptoms similar to brain injury even in the absence of any diagnosed concussion.
The lead author said in a press release that
“heading a soccer ball is not an impact of a magnitude that will lacerate nerve fibers in the brain, but repetitive heading could set off a cascade of responses that can lead to degeneration of brain cells over time.”
An important fact reported in this study is that the abnormal findings were only seen in players who frequently head the ball. Abnormal white matter was observed in players who headed the ball 885 times or more per year, while the poorer memory findings were only noted in players who headed the ball more than 1800 times a year.
Heading, where players field the ball with their head, is an integral part of soccer. In competitive games, with soccer balls traveling at velocities of 50 miles per hour or more, players may head the ball six to twelve times on average. During heading drills in practice sessions, the ball may be headed up to 30 or more times in a short period of time.
The abnormal brain findings were detected using Diffusion Tensor Imaging (DTI), an advanced MRI technique. DTI produces a measurement called “fractional anisotropy” (FA), which characterizes the movement of water molecules along the axons (nerve fibers) of the brain. Water movement is generally uniform, producing measures high in FA. Lower FA is an abnormality associated with cognitive impairment in patients with traumatic brain injury.