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Neuroscience

Headers hit the brains of footballers

Can you imagine 22 bobbing skullcaps on a football ground? Well, if latest neuroscience research on the effect of all the head-banging that happens in the sport is anything to go by then the Messis of the world could be playing the beautiful game wearing head guards in not too distant a future, much like their counterparts in ice hockey and Olympic boxing. Reason: The repeated impact of ball and body on the head causes repeated concussion syndrome, or, in simple terms brain damage that can impair personality, cognitive and executive functions in the long term.


For long dismissed as an exaggerated fear the theory that, like most contact sport, football too can cause long-term brain injury is back in medical spotlight, this time supported by evidence from modern imaging techniques like MR Tractography. The imagery is difficult to deny: it shows that every time a footballer smashes his head against a ball his brain is prone to suffering a small concussion. Repeated hundreds of times over a long career in the sport such knocks can incrementally damage the fibres that connect the grey matter to different parts of the brain.

The International Boxing Association (AIBA) made it mandatory for all boxers to wear skullcaps in 1982 in the face of incontrovertible evidence that getting pounded in the head is a sure-fire way of winding up with serious neurological disorders like dementia or Parkinson’s. The risk in football is comparable. When a footballer leaps and strikes a speeding ball with his head, the impact is akin to a boxer’s punch and modern scanning techniques have proved that the force of such a ‘contact’ is enough to disrupt white matter tracts. In other words, the risk of sustaining a head injury is as real for a footballer as it is for players in any other contact sport, the extreme being boxing.

When the head receives a knock it jolts the brain, throwing it in different directions inside the skull, which causes injury. Currently, several research projects are on to find ways of preventing such damage, including one inspired by the woodpecker, which focusses on enlarging the size of the brain and thereby filling out the empty spaces within the head. By limiting the space available for movement inside the head, doctors reckon that it may be possible to reduce the chances of the brain slamming into the hard skull as it happens in the case of a woodpecker. Because the woodpecker’s brain is tightly packed its head, the bird is able to relentlessly hammer away at the bark of trees without any risk to its cerebral matter, small as it may be!

The other option is for footballers to wear skull caps.

However, it is not clear whether a headgear is really the answer. After, sticking to the head guard rule for more than three decades, the AIBA recently repealed the law saying that “there’s no evidence protective gear shows a reduction in incidence of concussion.” Defending the move the chairman of AIBA’s medical commission, Charles Butler, said that medical studies suggest that fighting without head guards may in fact decrease concussions because the helmets diffuse the impact of a blow and allow fighters to continue sustaining more head shots for a longer stretch of time.

Be this as it may, the fact is that in several contact sports like ice hockey the helmet remains mandatory. And because the impact of a ball hitting the head is serious and has few other immediate solutions, wearing head-guards may still be the best solution for footballers to protect their brains before more effective solutions can be found.

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