Frequent soccer ball 'heading' may lead to brain injury

June 11, 2013, Radiological Society of North America

Soccer players who 'head' the ball with high frequency demonstrate poorer performance on memory tests and have brain abnormalities similar to those found in traumatic brain injury patients, according to a study published online in the journal Radiology.

"We chose to study , because soccer is the most popular sport worldwide," said Michael L. Lipton, M.D., Ph.D., associate director of the Gruss Magnetic Resonance Research Center at the College of Medicine and medical director of MRI at Montefiore Medical Center in New York City. "It is widely played by people of all ages, including children, and there is significant concern that that heading the ball—a key component of soccer—might cause damage to the brain."

Heading, in which players field the soccer ball with their head, is an essential part of the game. Players head the ball, on average, six to 12 times during competitive games, where balls can travel at velocities of 50 miles per hour or more. During practice sessions, heading drills, where the ball is headed repeatedly up to 30 or more times, are commonplace.

Recently, the lasting effects of concussion have received widespread attention and caused growing concern among amateur and professional athletes and organizations involved in several sports. While heading may be a cause of concussion and post-concussive symptoms, studies indicate that this is not common. The clinical significance of subconcussive heading as a cause of brain injury, however, remains largely unexplored.

"Heading a soccer ball is not an impact of a magnitude that will lacerate nerve fibers in the brain," Dr. Lipton said. "But repetitive heading could set off a cascade of responses that can lead to degeneration of over time."

(DTI), an advanced , allows researchers to assess microscopic changes in the brain's white matter, which is composed of billions of called axons that act like communication cables connecting various regions of the brain. DTI produces a measurement, called fractional anisotropy (FA), which characterizes the movement of water molecules along axons. In healthy white matter, the direction of water movement is fairly uniform and measures high in FA. When water movement is more random, FA values decrease. Abnormally low FA within white matter has been associated with cognitive impairment in patients with .

Dr. Lipton and colleagues conducted DTI on 37 amateur adult soccer players (median age 31 years). Twenty-nine of the study participants were men. Participants reported having played soccer for an average of 22 years and played an average of 10 months over the past year. The researchers estimated how often each player headed the ball on an annual basis and identified regions in the brain where FA changed in relation to prior heading. This analysis identified areas of the brain where FA values were significantly lower in players who headed more. The players also underwent cognitive testing.

"The brain findings of the most frequent headers in our study showed abnormalities of white matter similar to what we've seen in patients with concussion," Dr. Lipton said. "Soccer players who headed the ball above a threshold of 885 to 1,550 times a year had significantly lower FA in three areas of the temporal-occipital ."

Players with more than 1,800 headings per year were more likely to demonstrate poorer memory scores.

"What we've shown here is compelling initial evidence that there are brain changes that look like traumatic brain injury which are associated with heading a with high frequency," Dr. Lipton said. Further research should be a priority. In the meantime, controlling the amount of heading that people do may provide an approach for preventing brain injury as a consequence of heading."

Soccer is the world's most popular sport, with more than 265 million active players.

Explore further: 'Heading' a soccer ball could lead to brain injury

More information: "Soccer Heading Is Associated with White Matter Microstructural and Cognitive Abnormalities." Radiology, 2013.

Related Stories

'Heading' a soccer ball could lead to brain injury

November 29, 2011
Using diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) to study the effects of soccer 'heading,' researchers have found that players who head the ball with high frequency have brain abnormalities similar to those found in traumatic brain injury ...

Imaging shows some brains compensate after traumatic injury

November 26, 2012
Using a special magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) technique to image patients with mild traumatic brain injury (MTBI), researchers have identified a biomarker that may predict which patients will do well over the long term, ...

Can playing soccer lead to brain damage?

November 13, 2012
(HealthDay)—Soccer is an extremely popular team sport, and one of the few that doesn't require any protective head gear. But, a small study of professional soccer players from Germany suggests that even in players without ...

Heading a soccer ball may affect cognitive performance, study finds

February 27, 2013
Sports-related head injuries are a growing concern, and new research suggests that even less forceful actions like 'heading' a soccer ball may cause changes in performance on certain cognitive tasks, according to a paper ...

Novel brain imaging technique explains why concussions affect people differently

June 8, 2012
Patients vary widely in their response to concussion, but scientists haven't understood why. Now, using a new technique for analyzing data from brain imaging studies, researchers at Albert Einstein College of Medicine of ...

Research examines effect of heading in previously concussed female soccer players

May 8, 2013
(Medical Xpress)—A goal in soccer is worth one point no matter how it's scored, but for fans there may be no greater thrill than watching a talented player head the ball into the net.

Recommended for you

Colder, darker climates increase alcohol consumption and liver disease

November 14, 2018
Where you live could influence how much you drink. According to new research from the University of Pittsburgh Division of Gastroenterology, people living in colder regions with less sunlight drink more alcohol than their ...

Want to cut down on your meds? Your pharmacist can help.

November 14, 2018
Pharmacists are pivotal in the process of deprescribing risky medications in seniors, leading many to stop taking unnecessary sleeping pills, anti-inflammatories and other drugs, a new Canadian study has found.

Your heart hates air pollution. Portable filters could help

November 13, 2018
Microscopic particles floating in the air we breathe come from sources such as fossil fuel combustion, fires, cigarettes and vehicles. Known as fine particulate matter, this form of air pollution increases the risk of cardiovascular ...

No accounting for these tastes: Artificial flavors a mystery

November 13, 2018
Six artificial flavors are being ordered out of the food supply in a dispute over their safety, but good luck to anyone who wants to know which cookies, candies or drinks they're in.

Simple tips can lead to better food choices

November 13, 2018
A few easily learned tips on eating and food choice can increase amount of healthy food choices between 5 percent and 11 percent, a new Yale University study has found.

Insufficient sleep in children is associated with poor diet, obesity and more screen time

November 13, 2018
A new study conducted among more than 177,000 students suggests that insufficient sleep duration is associated with an unhealthy lifestyle profile among children and adolescents.

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Sinister1811
1 / 5 (2) Jun 11, 2013
Hmm. Doesn't explain the obvious brain injuries amongst World Cup referees.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.