A brief bout of heading a ball immediately changes brain function and how the brain communicates with surrounding muscles, a study found.
Participants who headed the ball 20 times in a row did not practice improving their performance on the cognitive task, while a control group who headed the ball in virtual reality improved.
According to research by academics at Manchester Metropolitan University’s School of Physical Education, this suggests that heading the ball impairs the ability to improve task performance.
Participants who led the real football also showed a pattern of brain activity during the handshake task, which may indicate that the brain is working harder to control their movements than those who lead the virtual football.
The impact of repeated headers and concussions is being closely studied after a 2019 FIELD study found footballers were three and a half times more likely to die from a neurodegenerative disease than their peers.
Further data from the study, to be published in 2021, shows that while goalkeepers are at no different risk than the general population, outfield players are four times more at risk and defenders are five times at risk.
The FA is currently trialling a ban on deliberate headers by children under 12, with guidelines advising against headers in training with the same age group, while limiting headers from older groups in youth football, and Limit headers in training for under 12s. Grassroots and elite games for adults.
The Manchester Metropolitan University study, published in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, divided 60 participants into two groups, one playing a real football game and the other wearing a VR headset.
The soccer-led group self-reported a range of symptoms typically associated with post-sport concussions.
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Dr Johnny Parr, Lecturer in Exercise Psychology at Manchester Metropolitan University’s School of Sport, said: “Our findings show that heading the ball clearly immediately changes brain function, and the way our brain and muscles communicate.
“However, at this point, it’s unclear what this altered activity represents.
“For example, a title might require participants to work harder or put in more cognitive effort to compensate for some deficits in the brain’s ability to process information.
“Or it could be that the altered activities reflect the need to manage the concussion symptoms that people experience as a result of the title agreement.
“It’s also possible that some of our findings could be explained by additional physiological changes that we didn’t measure — something we’re investigating further.”