When it comes to concussions, it is starting to look like women may have it a lot worse off than men. Research has suggested women may be more susceptible to brain injuries, and could take longer to recover.
Now, an unpublished study presented at the annual Society for Neuroscience conference in Washington, D.C., indicates that female soccer players may also sustain more brain damage from “heading” the ball compared to male players.
To assess just how much damage was being done by hitting the soccer ball with players’ heads, researchers from Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York scanned the brains of almost 100 male and female amateur soccer players. All of the players were in their 20’s or 30’s.
After scanning the brains, the researchers matched the images with each volunteer’s age and how many times they had headed the ball in the last season. This allowed the team to compare the brains of male and female players of similar ages with similar exposure to brain trauma.
After comparing the genders brains, the team says that the female players showed damage in more regions of the brain’s white matter than the male counterparts. The white matter was damaged in eight different brain regions in women, while only three regions where impacted in men.
Additionally, the women also showed a five-fold increase in affected tissue compared to men.
“Women generally have been known to have more symptoms that last longer, with worse outcomes, following mild head injuries than men,” says Michael Lipton, a professor of radiology and of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Albert Einstein College.
In the past, many have dismissed the gender differences in concussions by suggesting the discrepancies were caused by differences in reporting. The thought has been that men were less likely to report symptoms or concussions compared to women. However, Lipton says these new findings imply the difference is physiological.
While Lipton’s study isn’t able to identify exactly why women are such much more at risk from sub-concussive hits compared to male players, it does show that the damage isn’t caused by one single hit. Instead, the damage accumulates over time, triggering increased inflammation and neurodegeneration as the number of hits increase.
Lipton says the team’s findings show there is some sort of threshold between “safe” heading the ball and potentially dangerous head trauma. According to the scans, the degeneration only appears in those who head the ball more than 1,000 times a year.
“There’s likely to be some degree of heading which may not be bad for most people… There’s also likely to be an amount of heading that’s not good for anybody.”
However, Lipton says the risk is not the same for everyone. “This threshold is almost certainly not the same for everybody. It may be different for men and women, it may be different depending on your age, it may vary depending on your genetic susceptibility, your IQ, your neck strength,” he says. “We really don’t know. The only way to really understand this is to do the hard work to collect data and figure it out.”