Placing your head in the path of a fast-moving projectile multiple times isn’t everyone’s idea of having a good time, but it’s normal for football players. They can throw their foreheads at the soccer ball dozens of times in a single practice or match. But playing with your head can hurt your brain.
The technique known as “heading” causes damage to the white matter of the brain, and it does more damage to women than to men, according to research on amateur footballers presented this week at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience. Similar amounts of caps seemed to cause changes in more areas of the female brain, and a larger overall volume of their brain was damaged.
The cap is considered a subcommotional impact or blow to the head that does not cause any clinical symptoms. But it still does damage. “People are starting to think that more and more accumulations over the lifetime of sub-concussion injuries could lead to long-term deficits,” says Todd Rubin, senior author and researcher at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine at New York. “It’s not as benign as people once thought.”
White matter is made up of long projections that carry information between different sections of the brain. It is essentially the highway for signals and information to the brain. In a complete concussion, the brain’s white matter pathways stretch and tear. But this new study builds on previous research showing that repeated positions, even without a concussion, can also damage white matter. According to a 2013 study, observable changes in white matter begin to appear in soccer players who steer the ball about 1,000 times a year.
Rubin was interested in narrowing the differences in white matter changes between men and women, and compared 49 male and 49 female amateur soccer players corresponding to both age and the amount of title they have. declared in the past year. A growing body of evidence suggests that women suffer more concussions than men: they report more concussions, they have more symptoms, and these symptoms last longer.
It’s possible, says Michael Lipton, the lab’s principal investigator, that the increased damage from sub-concussion injuries is making women more susceptible to concussions overall.
There are two main theories for the gender differences in concussions: first, that the differences in neck strength and body mass mean that women feel a greater impact of the same amount of force, and second, that the hormonal and genetic factors play a role. Rubin’s study did not attempt to characterize the reason for the differences between the sexes, but he hopes that future work in mouse models will help unravel some of the mechanisms that lead to variation in white matter damage.
The long-term goal, says Lipton, is to determine the amount of cap – for men and women – that can add to the damage. “We are focusing on determining the cap dose that presents a risk. “