After reading my post on suicide, brain injuries, and soccer, a colleague of mine caught me in the hall this morning and mentioned that he had just been listening to the radio on the way to work and had heard a story on new research related to the dangers of “heading” a soccer ball.
While the new findings, presented this week at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America, does not make the link to suicide (or Gary Speed, for that matter), it does provide powerful evidence of the threat heading the ball holds for, well, . . . our heads.
Here is a CNN.com summary:
Heading the soccer ball too frequently may cause damage to the brain, according to new research.
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In smaller numbers, there doesn’t seem to be a problem. It’s when the number of headers reaches about 1,300 per year that the brain may begin to suffer traumatic brain damage.
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Numbers that high may seem excessive, but not for players regularly honing their skills on the field through practice. “Practice turns out to be a much bigger source of exposure than actual games,” says Dr. Michael Lipton, the lead study author and Director of Radiology Research at Albert Einstein College of Medicine. “Some people were reporting heading 5,000 times a year.”
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Lipton’s team of researchers recruited 39 soccer players from amateur leagues, men in their late twenties and early thirties who play regularly but not professionally; many of whom have been playing for most of their lives. Players filled out a questionnaire meant to help them estimate the number of headers they make each year. When researchers compared the brain scans of players reporting lower numbers of headers to players reporting higher numbers, there were distinct differences between the two group’s brains.
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“Excessive heading definitely seems to be associated with impairment of memory and processing speed,” says Lipton. “Soccer may not be as benign as people thought it was.”
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The study uses diffusion tensor imaging (DTI), a type of magnetic resonance (MR), which measures the movement of water molecules in the brain’s white matter. In healthy brains, the water molecules move in a uniform direction through the white matter, but in injured brains, they move less uniformly, and more randomly.
One of the more novel findings of the study is that the researchers found brain damage that resulted from routine heading, rather than from diagnosed concussions (which are already known to be a problem). For all soccer players out there, this is reason for concern.