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BBC Report: Can heading a ball cause a brain injury?

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BBC News have reported that heading a football can have a significant effect on a player’s brain – affecting function and memory for 24 hours.

A study carried out by researchers from the University of Stirling, University of Glasgow and Northumbria University looked at 19 amateur footballers who were asked to head a ball and were tested on memory as well as sensitive tests of their brain-muscle pathways. These tests were carried out before and after the footballers had headed a football 20 times.

Immediately after heading the ball, an increase of around five milliseconds was recorded in the communication between the brain and muscles. Memory tests also scored worse after the activity. No lasting effects were recorded 24 hours afterwards. Researchers reported “small but significant changes in brain function”.

This research only looked at a very small sample of people, but the findings do suggest that more research with a larger sample is necessary to explore the damage these kinds of sporting activities could be having on the brain.

This is the first research to look at the changes in the brain following everyday impacts, rather than from concussion from direct impacts that happen occasionally in football.

Dr Magdalena Ierwaart, a cognitive neuroscientist involved in the research commented, “Using a drill most amateur and professional teams would be familiar with, we found there was in fact increased inhibition in the brain immediately after heading and that performance on memory tests was reduced significantly.

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 football heading.”

She continued, “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 concern of concussion in sport is one which has been highlighted much more in recent years. As more and more research is reporting the very serious consequences of concussion, these risks are being tackled and more people are becoming aware of the dangers of continuing to participate in sporting activities following a head injury.

This research also raises the concerns of repeated damage, although relatively small, and how this may have an impact in later life on such things as the onset of dementia.

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