Brain White Matter Changes in Soccer Players

Nov 17, 2012
Study Examines Brain White Matter Changes in Soccer Players

“Soccer is the most popular sport in the world, with more than 250 million active players. It is the only sport in which the unprotected head is a primary point of contact when heading the ball. In other contact sports, the deleterious [harmful] long-term effects of repetitive traumatic brain injury (TBI), such as impaired white matter integrity, are well recognized. However, whether frequent subconcussive blows to the head lead to TBI remains controversial, although evidence suggests impaired neuropsychological function in soccer players,” writes Inga K. Koerte, M.D., of Harvard Medical School, Boston, and colleagues.

The researchers evaluated soccer players who had not experienced a concussion using high-resolution diffusion tensor imaging (DTI), which is highly sensitive for detecting alterations in the integrity of white matter.

As reported in a Research Letter, the study included 12 male soccer players from 2 training groups of an elite-level soccer club in Germany. A comparison group of 11 swimmers, who participate in a sport with low exposure to repetitive brain trauma, were recruited from competitive clubs.

The researchers found differences in white matter integrity of the soccer players compared with the swimmers. “Although only participants without previous symptomatic concussion were included, advanced DTI revealed widespread increase in radial diffusivity [a certain pattern seen on magnetic resonance imaging suggesting alterations in white matter architecture] in soccer players, consistent with findings observed in patients with mild TBI, and suggesting possible demyelination [nerve disorder],” they write.

“The etiology of the findings, however, is not clear. One explanation maybe the effect of frequent subconcussive brain trauma, although differences in head injury rates, sudden accelerations, or even lifestyle could contribute.” The authors add that future studies are needed to confirm the results and elucidate the cause and effects of white matter alterations in soccer players.

(JAMA. 2012;308[18]:1859-1861.