Too many headers ‘can damage the brain’

Frequently heading a football can lead to brain injury, warn doctors who say they have found proof on brain scans.Imaging of 32 keen amateur players revealed patterns of damage similar to that seen in patients with concussion.

There appears to be a safe cut off level of 1,000 or fewer headers a year below which no harm will be done, but the US investigators say more work is needed to confirm this.Heading is believed to have killed the English footballer Jeff Astle.

Astle, 59, who died in 2002, developed cognitive problems after years of playing for England and West Bromwich Albion. The coroner ruled that his death resulted from a degenerative brain disease caused by heading heavy leather footballs.

Although the balls used to play soccer today are much lighter than those used in the 1960s when Astle was playing, they can still pack a punch, says lead researcher Dr Michael Lipton of Montefiore Medical Center, the university hospital for the Albert Einstein College of Medicine.

Footballs can travel at speeds as high as 34 miles per hour during recreational play and more than double that during professional play. However, others doubt that the force exerted by the ball would be enough to cause damage.

Dr Lipton’s team set out to determine what impact on the head repeated contact with the ball might have. They used a special type of brain scan known as diffusion tensor imaging, which is good for visualising nerve and brain tissue.The 32 volunteers who underwent the scans were asked to say how often they headed the ball during football training and play.

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