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Soccer Headers Hurt Women’s Brains More than Men’s

MRI scans show more signs of white matter damage in female soccer players than in males.

By
Mary Bates, Contributor
Wednesday, August 8, 2018

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Shutterstock/Oleksandr Osipov

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Women’s brains are more vulnerable than men’s to injury from repeated soccer heading, a study of amateur soccer players suggests. Among players who headed a similar number of balls, women showed more signs of microscopic damage in their brains than men did. The results were published in the journal Radiology.

Researchers performed diffusion tensor imaging, a form of MRI, on male and female amateur soccer players who reported a similar number of headings over the previous year. Diffusion tensor imaging can assess microscopic changes in the brain’s white matter, such as damage to nerve cell axons and myelin, the protective coating that helps neurons send messages to one another.

The analysis revealed that, despite a similar number of headings, the volume of damaged white matter in female soccer players was five times greater than for male players. In addition, only three brain regions showed potential damage associated with frequent heading for the male players, compared to eight regions for the female players.

While the researchers don’t know why women’s brains appear to be more sensitive to head injury, they suggest that differences in neck strength, sex hormones or genetics could play a role.

The white matter changes observed in this study were subclinical, meaning they did not produce symptoms. However, there is still cause for concern. Repeated blows to the brain can contribute to memory loss and brain injuries such as chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a disorder found in professional football players, soldiers and others whose brains suffer repetitive trauma.

The researchers emphasize identifying risk factors for cumulative brain injury, so that athletes can minimize damage and allow for recovery.