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Heading Soccer Balls Tied to Damaging Brain Changes

Doing it a lot may increase risk of memory problems in adult soccer players, study says

WebMD News from HealthDay

By Serena Gordon

HealthDay Reporter

TUESDAY, June 11 (HealthDay News) -- Sophisticated scans reveal that soccer players who head the ball a lot show changes in the white matter of their brain that mirror those seen in traumatic head injuries.

In addition, they face a higher risk of developing thinking and memory problems, the researchers report.

"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 study author Dr. Michael Lipton, associate director of the Gruss Magnetic Resonance Research Center at Albert Einstein College of Medicine and medical director of magnetic resonance imaging at Montefiore Medical Center, both in New York City.

However, Lipton noted, "We cannot say heading caused these changes. We found an association, but in no way can we infer causation. You need a longitudinal study that follows people over time to prove causation."

Results of the study were released online June 11 in the journal Radiology.

Soccer is the world's most popular sport. More than 265 million people play the game worldwide, and heading is a common move in soccer. Heading a soccer ball means using your head instead of your feet to play the ball. In competitive games, players head the ball between an average of six and 12 times, according to background information in the study. In this elite level of play, the ball can travel at velocities of 50 miles per hour or more, according to the study.

This isn't the first study to link heading and changes in the white matter in the brain. In an issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association late last year, Harvard researchers compared soccer players to swimmers, and found changes in the white matter in soccer players.

White matter is the communication network in the brain; it sends messages between neurons (gray matter).

For the current study, Lipton and his colleagues recruited 37 adult amateur soccer players. Their ages ranged from 21 to 44 years old, and the average age was nearly 31. Twenty-eight of the volunteers were men. They played at least one competitive game of soccer each week, and practiced an average of two times a week, according to Lipton. Most had been playing since they were kids.

All underwent a special imaging technique called diffusion tensor magnetic resonance imaging that produces detailed images that show microscopic changes in the white matter of the brain.

The players also filled out a questionnaire about such factors as frequency of heading and prior concussions, and completed a number of tests to measure their thinking and memory skills.

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