Dr. Michael Lipton, associate director of Gruss Magnetic Resonance Research Center at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, isn’t the first doctor to suggest that repeated “heading” of a soccer ball could be potentially dangerous to brain health, but he did lead the latest study to back up that theory.
Heading is a common soccer move in which players hit the ball in a specific direction with (you guessed it) their heads. According to Lipton, active players will head the ball between six to twelve times on average during a competitive game, but that number can go higher than thirty during practices.
Lipton’s team used advanced magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans to observe the brains of players who had been playing the sport for an average of 22 years. They were roughly 31 years old at the time of the study and the majority of the participants were men. The scans showed significant changes in the brain comparable to those in TBI patients.
“The more heading people did, the more likely they were to have abnormalities of brain microstructure and worse cognitive performance,” Lipton told Fox News. “However, it’s not a relationship where the more they did the worse it was; but when they crossed a threshold level, we started to see a change in the brain measure typical in brain injury.”
Lipton suggests that players who headed the ball more than 885 times a year had significantly lower fractional anisotropy (FA). FA is the calculation of water molecule movement among the axons in white matter of the brain, and has been associated with cognition impairment in TBI patients. Players who went above 1,800 headers a year were significantly more likely to under-perform on memory tests.
Those numbers are estimates at the moment, and Lipton says that crossing these thresholds doesn’t necessarily mean you will incur brain damage, but the results of this study, do present strong evidence that high numbers of heading can lead to changes in the make-up of the brain which appear to be connected to brain damage at the moment. The study was published online in Radiology.