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Soccer ball 'heading' linked to brain abnormalities

Kathleen Blanchard's picture
Heading a soccer ball to often linked to brain abnormalities in new study.

Sports are a great way to stay fit, but when it comes to soccer ball, the practice of 'heading' the ball too often is found to lead to brain abnormalities.

According to a new investigation from the Radiological Society of North America, heading a soccer ball with high frequency leads to microscopic changes in the white matter of the brain that can lead to deterioration.

Michael L. Lipton, M.D., Ph.D., associate director of the Gruss Magnetic Resonance Research Center at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine and medical director of MRI services at Montefiore Medical Center in New York says the impact won’t lead to laceration of the nerve fibers in the brain, but “repetitive heading could set off a cascade of responses that can lead to degeneration of brain cells."

For their study, the researchers used an advanced form of MRI known as DTI. The technique allows measurements of water molecules along the axons that transmit impulses away from the brain.

The measurement, known as fractional anisotropy (FA), should be uniform in a healthy brain and water molecules should be active and FA values high. Decreased FA values are liked to traumatic brain injury (TBI) and associated with cognitive impairment.

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In their study of 32 soccer players, Lipton and his team compared brain images. They found frequent soccer ball headers had “…significant differences in FA in five brain regions in the frontal lobe and in the temporooccipital region," Dr. Lipton said. "Soccer players who headed most frequently had significantly lower FA in these brain regions."

The area of the brain affected by frequent impact of a soccer ball relate to attention, memory, executive functioning and higher-order visual functions.

Dr.Lipton explains, “Our goal was to determine if there is a threshold level for heading frequency that, when surpassed, resulted in detectable white matter injury.”

The finding, according to Lipton, shows it may be important to protect soccer players from head injury, especially given the popularity of the sport.

The brain abnormalities detected in the study from frequent ‘heading’ of a soccer ball showed more than 1,000 to 1,500 heads per year causes abnormalities in areas of the brain that could affect attention, memory and executive and visual functioning.

Image credit: Morguefile