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Heading the ball may cause more harm in female players

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‘Heading’ the ball in football may be more risky for women than men, new research suggests.

According to a study presented at Neuroscience 2017, the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience, heading the ball disrupts brain connections called axons to a larger extent in females than in males.

Lead author Todd G. Rubin of Albert Einstein College of Medicine noted that heading doesn’t typically result in a concussion, but there is growing evidence linking the move to central nervous system damage.

For example, previous studies using a brain scanning technique called diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) have revealed that heading can damage the integrity of the axons — the long, thin projections that carry electrical signals from neuron to neuron.

Women appear to be more vulnerable than men to problems associated with heading, as they report more symptoms that last longer, Rubin said. The reasons for these differences are not yet understood.

To assess possible gender differences in the effects of heading, the research team used DTI to examine 49 male and 49 female amateur soccer (football) players, paired based on age and frequency of heading.

The results showed that higher levels of heading were associated with decreased axonal integrity in three brain regions for men and eight brain regions for women. In seven of the areas identified in women, the association between axonal integrity and heading was significantly stronger than it was in men.

“Given similar amounts of exposure to heading, women show a greater volume of abnormality that is significantly different from what is seen in men,” Rubin commented. “Identifying and understanding the basis for differences in susceptibility to injury represent key steps in determining better treatments and guidelines for safer play.”