Researchers at Boston University have found the head trauma-linked degenerative disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in a soccer player for the first time, The New York Times reports. The finding shows that the recent rash of brain injury diagnoses aren't just limited to violent sports like football or boxing.
The analysis stems from a look at the brain of Patrick Grange, a former player for the Chicago Fire who died in April 2012 from ALS (Lou Gehrig's Disease) at the age of 29. Though no clear link can be made as to the brain injury's cause, Grange was remembered as an avid header of the ball and sustained a few concussions in his playing days, according to his parents. "We have seen other athletes in their 20s with this level of pathology, but they’ve usually been football players,” Dr. Ann Mckee, who has tested and found CTE in dozens of football players, told The Times. Mckee and other Boston University researchers have been at the forefront of CTE findings, most notably documented in the Frontline exposé film and similarly-titled book League of Denial.
Football has been at the forefront of the head injury debate, but the Grange diagnosis and that of baseball player Ryan Freel late last year shows that it's a more widespread issue. Football has made highly public attempts to change the rules to address head injuries, and baseball recently banned its dangerous home-plate collisions as a response to that growing concern.
For soccer, though, taking headers or collisions out of the game will prove to be more difficult. Many players consider headers an essential part of the sport, one which can't be removed with some simple tweaks. Some players, like goalie Petr Cech, do wear padded helmets for protection from an errant kick to the skull, but the vast majority of players simply swat at the ball with their noggins.
Neither is it clear whether seemingly innocuous headers like Grange delivered on a regular basis are actually are linked to head injury. For example, a study on the risks of soccer headers in 2001 noted the many complicated factors involved in assigning blame for the disease to any one specific action. "What does seem clear is that a player's history of concussive episodes is a more likely explanation for cognitive deficits," the authors wrote in a paper available on PubMed. More recent studies in Radiology and Brain Injury journals, though, have found a link between constant headers and lower cognitive output.