A brief session of heading footballs immediately alters brain function and the way the brain communicates with the muscles around it, a study has found.
Participants who successively headed 20 footballs did not improve their performance on a cognitive task with practice, while a control group who performed headers in virtual reality did.
It suggests heading impairs the ability to improve performance on the task, according to the study by academics at Manchester Metropolitan University’s Institute of Sport.
The participants who headed real footballs also displayed a pattern of brain activity during a handgrip task that may indicate the brain was working harder to control their movements compared to participants who headed virtual footballs.
The impact of repetitive heading and exposure to concussion is being studied closely after the 2019 FIELD study found footballers were three-and-a-half times more likely to die of neurodegenerative disease than age-matched members of the population.
Further data released from the study in 2021 showed that while a goalkeeper’s risk was no different from the general population, an outfield player’s risk was four times greater and a defender’s risk was five times higher.
The Football Association is currently trialling a ban on deliberate heading in under-12s football and has imposed guidelines advising against heading in training for the same age groups, along with limits on heading for older age groups in youth football and restrictions on heading in training in the adult grassroots and elite game.
The Manchester Metropolitan University study, published in the Frontiers in Human Neuroscience journal, used 60 participants split into two equal groups, one of which headed real footballs and the other wearing VR headsets.
The group which headed the footballs self-reported an array of symptoms commonly associated with concussion after the exercise.
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Dr Johnny Parr, lecturer in sport psychology at the Manchester Metropolitan University Institute of Sport, said: “Our findings show that heading a football clearly induces some immediate changes to brain function, and how our brain and muscles communicate.
“But, at this point, it’s still unclear what this altered activity represents.
“For example, it could be that heading required participants to work harder or invest greater cognitive effort in order to compensate for some deficit in the brain’s ability to process information.
“Or it could be that the altered activity reflects the need to manage the concussive symptoms that people experience as a result of the heading protocol.
“It’s also possible that some of our findings could be explained by additional physiological changes that we didn’t measure – and this is something we are researching further.”