Study Weighs Soccer’s Risks and Rewards to Brain Health

Study Weighs Soccer’s Risks and Rewards to Brain Health

Recent Einstein studies have shown that amateur soccer players who head the ball above a certain threshold are at higher risk for cognitive and memory problems compared to those who head the ball less frequently. On the other hand, engaging in athletics has been shown to improve brain function. So it’s understandable that many soccer players and their parents wonder if the risks of playing soccer outweigh the benefits.

In a new study, researchers in the ongoing Einstein Soccer Study led by Michael L. Lipton, M.D., Ph.D., associate director of Einstein’s Gruss Magnetic Resonance Research Center and medical director of MRI services at Montefiore, assessed and compared the micro-structural integrity of the brain and cognitive performance among three groups: 246 amateur soccer players, 72 non-contact/non-collision sports athletes, and 110 healthy, non-athlete controls. (Brain structures were evaluated using 3T diffusion tensor imaging, an advanced MRI-based imaging technique.)

The researchers found that, compared with non-athletes, those athletes with no exposure or low exposure to repetitive heading exhibited both a higher degree of white matter anisotropy (the higher, the better, in terms of brain health) and better cognitive performance. However, soccer players with the highest exposure to repetitive head impacts did not differ significantly from non-athletes on either micro-structural features or cognitive performance. In neither case could the differences be explained by concussion history or demographic factors. The findings were published online on July 25 in Brain Imaging & Behavior.

Dr. Lipton and colleagues published a second soccer study online on August 10 in PLoS One. Rather than look for micro-structural changes, this study examined gross structural changes in the brain. The study recruited 375 young (average age 23) amateur soccer players who estimated how many times they’d headed the ball in the previous year and how many concussions they’d experienced over their lives. All players then underwent MRIs that looked for two indicators of gross brain damage: loss of brain volume and thinning of the brain’s cortex. Neither heading at any level nor concussion history was significantly associated with either lower brain volume or a thinner brain cortex. The researchers concluded that soccer heading’s previously reported adverse effects on brain microstructure may be remediable and don’t necessarily lead to gross neurodegeneration.

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