Researchers studying soccer concussions and links to CTE

Science focusing on how many hits, not just how hard

We frequently write about concussion prevention, usually in connection to football. But concussions are a concern in soccer, too, and scientists are turning their attention to the sport.

Most people don’t think of soccer as a contact sport. But repeated player-on-player impacts and headers can result in concussions. Soccer is played by millions of kids at all age levels, so concussion education and research related to prevention is critical.

A good starting point is the U.S. Soccer Federation’s policy that strictly limits headers in youth soccer. Set in 2015, it prohibits players under age 10 from heading the ball and reduces headers during practice for players aged 11 to 13.

Concussions and CTE

Talk of concussions always leads to talk of CTE, or chronic traumatic encephalopathy. CTE is a progressive degenerative brain disease found in people with a history of repetitive brain trauma. It can only be diagnosed by conducting an autopsy. To date, there is no definitive proof that CTE is caused by concussions.

However, research suggests that repeated, less violent sub-concussive hits football and soccer players take may trigger CTE.  Current research being conducted by Michael Lipton, a neuroscientist at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, is seeking to identify what triggers CTE. His research seeks an answer to the question of how much impact it takes for brain function to be affected.

Measuring the impact scientifically

Lipton hopes to find the answer by tracking about 400 recreational soccer players for Concussions in youth sportsseveral years. The study participants get a brain scan and blood work done. To test cognitive abilities, they participate in brain games on a tablet. Changes in brain function are mapped through diffusion tensor magnetic resonance imaging.

Lipton found in an earlier study of about 37 players that heading the ball is associated with cognitive setbacks and changes to the brain structure. This was the case even when no concussion was diagnosed. Observation of the players revealed that they head the ball an average of six to 12 times each game. These balls are traveling missile-like at speeds up to 50 mph. Players headed balls up to 30 times during practice drills. The study suggests that memory problems set in at about 1,800 headers.

Looking ahead

Conducting such a study on a larger group of players could help researchers find the point at which players should cease playing or back off heading the ball.

Other medical researchers hope to eventually isolate a biomarker that signals the onset CTE. That information would enable players to determine if and when it’s time to hang up their cleats.

In my opinion

I’m a bit confused about Lipton’s research methods. I seriously doubt he will find much heading of the ball in his new study of recreational soccer players. In his earlier study, the number of headers cited per practice seem too high for even the average club-level team. In watching my daughters’ club and high school practices over the past 10 years, I’ve never seen anything close to 30 repetitive header practices with high speed balls. The only heading-specific drills are low speed. The entire team may practice high-speed headers off of corner kicks, but the hits are spread out among the entire team.

You can read further articles about concussions on our blog.


Source: ERIC NIILER, “Brain Trauma Scientists Turn Their Attention to Soccer.” wired.com. 27 July 2017