Soccer, popular throughout the world, is the only sport where the unprotected head is a primary point of contact for the ball during play. While such contact, known as “heading,” may not cause the traumatic brain injury seen in other contact sports, the effect of repeated, minor blows to the head is unclear. (These minor blows to the head are call sub-concussive, meaning that they are not strong enough to result in a concussion.) Newly published research, conducted by scientists at Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH) and Ludwig-Maximilians-University in Munich, Germany, may help shed light on whether sub-concussive blows can cause brain injury among soccer players and other athletes.
Using a high-resolution magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) technique called diffusion tensor imaging, the researchers studied the brains of 12 male soccer players from elite soccer clubs in Germany and compared their MRI scans to eight competitive swimmers, a sport with few head injuries. Study participants in both groups were similar in age and gender. The researchers specifically looked for changes in the white matter areas of the brain. The white matter regions are known to be responsible for attention, visual processing, higher order thinking, and memory.