Study of the Day: Repeat 'Heading' in Soccer Causes Brain Damage

This shouldn't come as a surprise, but research shows that repeatedly hitting your head against a fast-moving object can lead to serious brain injuries

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PROBLEM: Though common sense dictates that hitting your head against objects that move as fast as 34 miles per hour can cause serious injuries, many soccer players repeatedly field balls this way in training drills and games. Curious and perhaps also concerned, researchers led by Dr. Michael L. Lipton wanted to know if there is a threshold level for heading frequency that, when surpassed, results in brain damage.

METHODOLOGY: The investigators conducted DTI, an advanced magnetic resonance technique that allows researchers to assess microscopic changes in the brain's white matter, on 32 amateur soccer players who have played the sport since childhood. They estimated how often each of the participants headed the ball annually and then analyzed their brain scans for signs of injury.

RESULTS: Soccer players who headed balls more than 1,000 times a year had significantly diminished fractional anisotropy or FA in regions linked to attention, memory, executive functioning and higher-order visual functions. (FA is a measure that reflects the ability of water molecules in the brain to steadily move along axons, and abnormally low FA within white matter has been associated with cognitive impairment in people with severe brain damage.)

CONCLUSION: Those who head soccer balls with high frequency exhibit brain abnormalities similar to those found in traumatic brain injury patients.

IMPLICATION: Practices involving this wildly popular sport may need to be reevaluated to protect players from brain damage. Lipton notes in a statement, "While heading a ball 1,000 or 1,500 times a year may seem high to those who don't participate in the sport, it only amounts to a few times a day for a regular player."

SOURCE: The study, "Making Soccer Safer for the Brain: DTI-Defined Exposure Thresholds for White Matter Injury Due to Soccer Heading," was presented recently at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America.

Image: Henry Romero/Reuters.

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Hans Villarica writes for and produces The Atlantic's Health channel. His work has appeared in TIME, People Asia, and Fast Company.

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