When soccer players use their heads during a game, they may be putting their brains in danger. A preliminary study released this week shows that “heading” a soccer ball time after time may increase the risk of brain injury and cognitive impairment. Heading occurs when players consciously hit or field the ball with their head. Dr. Mark Lipton MD, PhD, of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine Bronx, N.Y conducted the study and presented it at the annual conference of the Radiological Society of North America (RSNA) in Chicago.
The researchers used diffusion tensor imaging (DTI), which is an advanced MRI-based imaging technique that detects little changes in our brain by measuring the diffusion of water in the brain's white matter. The study scanned the brains of 38 amateur soccer players who have been playing soccer since they were children. Study participants documented how many times they headed the ball in the past year and then the researchers listed them in order of heading frequency. Researchers then compared the brain images of the most frequent headers with those of the remaining players and found that frequent headers showed brain injury similar to that seen in patients mild traumatic brain injury (TBI) which is commonly called concussion.
The five areas in the brain affected by heading and seen on DTI include the areas behind the forehead (frontal lobe) and the bottom-rear forehead area (temporal-occipital). These areas are responsible for attention, memory, executive function and higher-order visual functions. Dr. Lipton and colleague Molly Zimmerman, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Saul R. Korey Department of Neurology at Einstein, also conducted a similar study giving the same 38 amateur soccer players tests that would determine their neuropsychological function. Players who had the highest number of headings per year performed worse on tests of verbal memory and psychomotor speed (activities that require mind-body coordination, like throwing a ball) compared to their peers.
The study goal as stated by Dr. Lipton,”was to determine if there is a threshold level for heading frequency that, when surpassed, resulted in detectable brain injury.” It seems that 1000 – 1500 headings per year may be too many as this is when researchers observed injuries. "These two studies present compelling evidence that brain injury and cognitive impairment can result from heading a soccer ball with high frequency," Dr. Lipton said. "These are findings that should be taken into consideration in planning future research to develop approaches to protect soccer players."
While the study is very small (only 38 participants), has not been peer reviewed and there are no control groups, it does offer us some valuable information on the acceptable range for heading in soccer and further research in this area warranted in this matter.
Press Release."Heading" In Soccer Can Lead to Brain Injury and Cognitive Impairment." Bronx, N.Y. Albert Enstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University. November 29, 2011. http://www.newswise.com/articles/frequent-heading-in-soccer-can-lead-to-brain-injury-and-cognitive-impairment
Press Release. "Frequent 'heading' in Soccer Can Lead to Brain Injury and Cognitive Impairment." Science Daily. November 29, 2011. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/11/111129092420.htm
As always thanks for reading and Happy Holidays!
© Nancy Harris Bonk, 2011.
Last updated December 1, 2011.
Last updated December 1, 2011.