Heading a football can significantly reduce memory and brain function for 24 hours, according to a new study by researchers at the University of Sterling.
Using a machine to fire a football towards players at the speed and power of a corner kick, the researchers discovered memory to be reduced by between 41 and 67 percent, taking up to 24 hours to return to normal functioning capacity.
“Although the changes were temporary, we believe they are significant to brain health, particularly if they happen over and over again as they do in soccer ball heading,” said Cognitive neuroscientist Dr Magdalena Ietswaart from Psychology at the University of Stirling.
“With large numbers of people around the world participating in this sport, it is important that they are aware of what is happening inside the brain and the lasting effect this may have.”
The research, published in the journal EBioMedicine, was the first of its kind to investigate the immediate aftereffects of everyday head injuries, as opposed to those resulting in a concussion diagnosis.
“For the first time, sporting bodies and members of the public can see clear evidence of the risks associated with repetitive impact caused by heading a soccer ball,” said Dr Angus Hunter, Reader in Exercise Physiology at the University of Sterling.
“We hope these findings will open up new approaches for detecting, monitoring and preventing cumulative brain injuries in sport. We need to safeguard the long term health of soccer ball players at all levels, as well as individuals involved in other contact sports.”
The dramatic finding was reflected across the pond by a similar study published in Radiology. A team of American researchers found measurable changes in the brains of young American football players aged between 8 and 13 after playing the game for a season.
The American study showed significant abnormalities in the white matter of the brain that is made up of nerve fibres carrying messages between different regions of the brain.
“We do not know if there are important functional changes related to these findings, or if these effects will be associated with any negative long-term outcomes,” said Lead Author and Associate Professor and Chief of Neuroradiology at Wake Forest School of Medicine, Dr. Christopher Whitlow.
The two studies raise particular concerns about the unknown effects of impact sports on the developing brains of children, as well as amateur and professional athletes.
“Football is a physical sport, and players may have many physical changes after a season of play that completely resolve. These changes in the brain may also simply resolve with little consequence. However, more research is needed to understand the meaning of these changes to the long-term health of our youngest athletes,” said Dr Whitlow.