Possible brain damage when heading a soccer ball? A startling new study from Scotland reports that the popular soccer move known as “heading” causes brain function impairment. Although the effects were found to be temporary, the researchers, who published their findings in the medical journal EBioMedicine, express concern about whether over time the adverse effects on brain function of repeated heading could become more permanent. Could this lead to permanent brain damage for young soccer players?
The study’s conclusion – that routine heading of a soccer ball may damage brain structure and function – is the first to detect direct neurological changes by impacts below the level of a concussion.
The researchers cite the brain changes they detected in the soccer players they studied as “small but significant.” Even though the effects on brain function were found to be temporary and minor, the study raises new concerns about the safety of playing soccer, especially the popular practice of “heading.”
In heading, a player intercepts an airborne soccer ball with the top of their head to make a shot and/or block one by the opposing team. Although the player cannot always control the direction of the ball after heading it, it gives their teammates an opportunity to rush up to the ball and try to advance it towards their goal. Sometimes by rotating their head, skilled soccer players can change the direction of the ball.
Soccer’s Potential for Brain Damage of Worldwide Concern
This new finding about soccer generated media attention around the globe. Soccer is the world’s most popular sport with over 265 million amateur and professional players. Competitive players are known to head the ball between six to 12 times per game, according to media reports, and at ball speeds much faster than those tested.
The study comes after a flurry of disturbing news of premature dementia and other signs of impaired brain function, with brain damage over time, in professional U.S. football players who have suffered repeated brain concussions.
Soccer, especially among competitive skilled players of all ages, usually includes frequent heading the ball. But until now there has been little study of heading’s effects. This new research study signals a change in this neglected but important subject. The researchers used sensitive brain imaging to take a scientific look at what happens to players’ brains after heading the ball.
“Although the magnitude of the acute changes observed was small,” state the researchers in their published paper, “it is the presence of the effect that is of interest. This measure was previously shown to be altered in confirmed concussion, but the acute changes . . . following the sub-concussive impact of heading raise concerns that this practice, routine in soccer, may affect brain health.”
How Was This New Study Conducted?
The study involved 19 amateur soccer players (five female), average age 22 years. The researchers excluded any soccer players with a history of concussion in the past year, any head injury that had resulted in loss of consciousness, or those needing to take medication from participating in the study.
Following 24 hours of no physical activity, the study subjects took part in the heading test. This involved heading a ball projected at them by a machine.
The soccer players were asked to perform a rotational header (a header where the direction of the ball is changed) on each ball projected towards them.
Each player received 20 consecutive impacts, within 10 minutes, to replicate a normal heading practice. Rotational headers were studied because they are thought to cause more injury than a linear header in which the ball bounces only forwards or backwards from the player’s head.
After heading the soccer balls 20 times, each player had a medical device called a transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) attached to their head. The TMS machine reportedly can detect signs of concussion and how well the brain nerve pathways can communicate with the muscles. It specifically looks at signals from the primary motor cortex which helps control physical movement.
Players were asked to repeatedly extend their knee. They had recordings of the electrical activity of the muscles taken of the quadriceps muscles to examine nerve signals coming from the brain to the muscles.
The soccer players were also given a cognitive test to gauge their reaction time, attention, learning and memory.
The testing was done several times – immediately after heading, then 24 hours, 48 hours and two weeks later. Measures were compared with each player’s data taken before heading.
What Were the Study Results?
Changes in motor response and memory were observed in the five women and 14 men participating in the study. The researchers found that in the test results immediately after heading the ball, the players’ error scores on both short- and long-term memory tests were significantly higher than their baseline performances.
Even after just a single session of heading, memory-test performance was reduced by as much as 67%, though this effect diminished after 24 hours. But the researchers caution against interpreting the temporariness of memory loss as a sign of no long-term damage.
Brain Function Needs to be Safeguarded in Young Athletes
Brain function is one of our most important assets as human beings. Even if we must face physical limitations and challenges in our lives, with optimal brain function we can cope with them. We can learn to use supportive techniques and equipment designed to help people with physical disabilities lead full productive lives. But loss of brain function, possibly the result of brain damage, can render us helpless and limit even our appreciation of life’s joys. We must realize that modern medicine has made it possible to prolong the lives of our physical bodies but not our brain function.
“Young people understandably cannot imagine themselves ever being old or experiencing the challenges posed by a loss of their cognitive abilities,” said Mary Hayashi, project director of the Women’s Sports Safety Initiative. “That is why it is crucial for the adults charged with protecting the health and well being of young people make safeguarding their brain function a top priority.”