Soccer ‘Heading’ Causes Brain Drain

Study Links Soccer Heading to Decreased Cognitive Function

Soccer Heading Linked to Brain Function Decline

Soccer Heading

“Use your head!” Or so they say. But new research suggests that soccer players who use their heads to strike the ball may be putting their brain at risk. A study presented at the Radiological Society of North America (RSNA) annual meeting in Chicago reveals that this popular technique can lead to a decline in brain structure and function. Dr. Michael Lipton, the senior study author, warns that the long-term effects of soccer heading could include neuro-degeneration and dementia. It’s time to put our heads together and assess the impact of this seemingly innocent soccer move.

In this groundbreaking study, researchers examined brain changes over a two-year period. They surveyed 148 amateur players, aged 27 on average, about their soccer habits, including how often they head the ball. The participants were divided based on exposure level: low, moderate, or high. Surprisingly, over a quarter of the players were women. Verbal learning and memory tests were conducted, and each player underwent a specialized head scan called diffusion tensor imaging (DTI), a cutting-edge MRI technique that tracks the movement of water through brain tissue.

The images revealed startling results. Participants who headed the ball more than 1,500 times during the two-year period showed significant changes in brain microstructure. Dr. Lipton explains, “Our analysis found that high levels of heading over the two-year period were associated with changes in brain microstructure similar to findings seen in mild traumatic brain injuries.” Not only that, but high levels of heading were also linked to a decline in verbal learning performance. This study is the first of its kind to demonstrate long-term brain structural changes related to sub-concussive head impacts in soccer.

But the research doesn’t stop there. Dr. Lipton and his team plan to report findings from a second study that examined the link between repetitive head impacts from soccer heading and verbal learning performance. This study, involving 353 amateur players aged 18 to 53, aims to uncover more about the hidden dangers of this widely-used technique.

Using DTI, the researchers focused on the gray matter-white matter interface closer to the skull, an area prone to injury that has been overlooked in previous studies. The DTI scans revealed that repetitive head impacts blunted the sharp distinction between gray matter and white matter. Dr. Lipton explains, “In various brain disorders, what is typically a sharp distinction between these two brain tissues becomes a more gradual or fuzzier transition.” The integrity of this interface may be the root cause of the link between repetitive head impacts and cognitive decline.

So, should we reconsider how we play this beloved sport? Dr. Lipton believes these findings contribute to the ongoing debate about whether soccer heading is harmless or poses significant risks. It’s time to take a timeout and reevaluate the impact of this popular technique.

What are your thoughts on this research? Do you think soccer heading carries real risks? Share your opinion in the comments below!

More information

For more information about traumatic brain injury, visit the Mayo Clinic.

Source: Radiological Society of North America, news release, Nov. 28, 2023

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