Heading a soccer ball can lead to brain cell damage, a new study from UBC Okanagan has found. (Unsplash)

Heading soccer balls can cause damage to brain cells: UBC study

Roughly 42 per cent of children in the country play soccer, according to statistics from Heritage Canada

Tackling in football and hitting in hockey are two known concerns for concussions – but a new study suggests that less aggressive contact – such as between a soccer ball and a head – could have concerning impacts.

Repetitive impacts of a soccer ball on a player’s head could be causing damage to cells of the nervous system, a study by University of British Columbia Okanagan neuroscience professors has found.

“Soccer is unique in that playing the ball with the head is encouraged, yet players don’t wear protective headgear,” said Paul van Donkelaar, UBC Okanagan neuroscientist, in a news release.

“Although there are a growing number of studies evaluating the wisdom of this, ours is the first to measure blood biomarkers of cell injury.”

The study, released Tuesday, involved Van Donkelaar and his research team evaluating the impact of 40 headers by 11 participants, with a specific focus on the blood levels of two nerve cell enriched proteins, tau and light neurofilament. Meanwhile, participants were also asked to record any concussion symptoms.

That data was compared to an alternate set of measurements taken when participants didn’t head the soccer ball.

Researchers found that on the days when participants had headed a ball, neurofilament blood levels were higher and symptoms such as headaches, dizziness and confusion were reported. The same results were seen 22 days later.

Neurofilament has been noted by previous researchers for acting as a integral marker when detecting head injuries and acute concussions in athletes, doctoral graduate student Colin Wallace said.

Roughly 42 per cent of children in the country play soccer, according to statistics from Heritage Canada. As sports organizations look to increase safety, some U.S. soccer clubs have already moved to ban heading by players under the age of 10.

“We suggest that heading in soccer should not be overlooked as a potential way to inflict damage to nerve cells. Perhaps our findings are game changers. As in hockey and other contact sports, changes in conduct and equipment should be considered,” Wallace said.


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