Soccer ball heading may lead to brain damage

There has been considerable research interest in the last few years concerning athletes and chronic head trauma, especially in the sport of boxing. Boxers have been found to have a higher rate of depression, aggression, impulsiveness and memory loss, as well as more severe diseases such as Parkinson’s disease, epilepsy, and Alzheimer’s.

There is even a medical term for the dementia seen in some long-term boxers, “dementia pugilistica”. Many medical experts have called for even banning the sport.

After witnessing women’s boxing at the 2012 Olympic Games, the chairman of Molecular Biology of Neurological Disease at London’s University College said “we shouldn’t get our fun out of watching people inflict brain damage on each other. To me as a neuroscientist it’s almost surreal.”

It’s not hard to imagine why the damage occurs. Powerful new MRI techniques have demonstrated that major hits to the head from boxing, American football, and soccer cause micro-bleeding in the brain, and probably tearing of the neuron cells.

Part of the damage might even be secondary to an “auto-immune” response, meaning the body’s immune system attacks our own healthy cells. Hits to the head may produce a “leak” in the normally intact barrier between the brain and the blood system, leading to a “leak” of protein that sets off this immune response.

We close with a study published February 27 in the science journal Plos One which studied high school girl soccer players (for some reason, girl soccer players suffer concussions at a rate only second to male American football players).

Researchers wanted to see if they could detect any drop in mental functioning after a girl’s soccer practice, during which all the girls headed the ball multiple times, some up to 20 times. To measure brain functioning, they did what is called the “anti-point” test administered on iPads. In this test, four squares show on an iPad screen, and one of the squares “glow”.

The test is called “anti-point” because the task is to as quickly as possible touch the box opposite the one that is glowing. The results were that the girls who had performed multiple headers did slightly worse on the anti-point test than girls who had not taken part in the soccer practice. On some other tests, the soccer players performed as well as the non-players, and none over the soccer players suffered academic problems at school.

But on the anti-point test, the more the girl had headed the ball, the worse her performance. Neuroscientists say players or parents should not be excessively worried, as the damage appeared slight. However, after years of heading the ball, there could be accumulative damage.

More studies will be carried out on soccer players in the coming years, and we will keep you up-to-date here in Mais Saude. In the meantime, soccer players concerned about optimal mental functioning should probably limit heading the soccer ball. And there is a growing medical consensus that children below the age of 12 should not be heading the ball at all.

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