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‘Heading’ in Soccer Could Lead to Brain Damage

Update Date: Jun 11, 2013 02:46 PM EDT

Although sports are a great way to unite people and teach people how to be good team players, sports are also responsible for several injuries ranging from a mild sprain to severe bone breaking. Studies have also looked into the potential dangers that sports have on the brain. These studies have mostly focused on football players who experience a lot of head tackling and suffer from concussions. In a newer study, researchers from Albert Einstein College of Medicine, looked at the effects of heading in soccer, which occurs when the player uses his or her head to pass or score the ball. They found that head shots could be linked to brain injuries.

The research team, headed by Dr. Michael Lipton, associate director of the Gruss Magnetic Resonance Research Center the college and medical director of magnetic resonance imaging at Montefiore Medical Center, recruited 37 amateur soccer players, 28 were men and nine were women. The majority of the participants had started playing soccer at a young age. The average age for this group was 31 with the range of 21 to 44. The participants all had at least one competitive soccer match and at least two practices per week.

The researchers used a diffusion tensor magnetic resonance imaging machine that allowed them to take pictures of the participants' brains. The participants also answered a questionnaire and performed several tests that measured thinking and memory. The researchers found that the higher the number of heading events the people reported, the more changes there were in brain white matter. White matter is responsible for communication in the brain and it affects how messages get transferred between neurons.

"We looked at the relationship between heading and changes in the brain and changes in cognitive functions [thinking and memory], and we found that the more heading people do, the more likely we are to find microscopic structural abnormalities in the brain, and they're more likely to do poorly on cognitive tests, particularly in terms of memory," said Lipton.

The researchers calculated that when the number of headings was between 885 and 1,550, brain white matter had noticeable changes. When the number surpassed 1,800, memory appeared to be negatively affected. Despite these findings, the researchers stated that their results did not reveal a cause and effect. They cannot definitively state that headings in soccer lead to traumatic brain damage. However, the finding did observe changes in white matter even though the participants did not experience concussions. Previous research by Harvard scientists who compared the brain images of soccer players to swimmers found that soccer players had changes in brain white matter that was not present in the swimmers.

"This study shows that even if you don't have a concussion or a noticeable injury, if you look close enough at the brain, you can see changes. The evidence from these adults seems reasonably compelling that these minor heading events accumulate over time," said Dr. Michael Bell, director of pediatric neurocritical care at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh according to HealthDay.

The study was published in Radiology

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