This new finding was published in the journal PLoS ONE, and outlines a tablet-based experiment that showed sub-concussive head impacts in soccer affect athletes' performance on cognitive tasks.
Led by Anne Sereno, a team of researchers from the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston examined the effects of non-injurious head-to-ball contacts on cognitive function by using an iPad app.
The study included 24 female participants, 12 soccer players and 12 non-soccer players. The median age of the volunteers was 16.5 years.
All participants had normal or corrected to normal vision and none had documented any earlier head injury or neurological conditions.
The investigators found that high school girl soccer players were much slower than non-soccer players on a task that forced them to point away from a target on the screen, however during the task of pointing to the on-screen visual target, no difference was seen.
Cognitive tasks that consist of point away from a target require certain voluntary responses, while going toward a target is a reflexive response.
Even heading a soccer ball may have an effect on cognitive performance
The authors concluded that sub-concussive hits to the head can cause changes directly associated to specific cognitive functions.
Sub-concussive hits in soccer can result in cognitive function changes that are the same as mild traumatic brain injury of the frontal lobes. Concussion can have effects that persist for several years, even decades
The application used in this study may be an effective and quick method to detect and follow cognitive changes in athletes.
The authors point out that a tablet-based application for fast screenings could also have a wider base of application within the clinic or the field.
Although the findings were very interesting, it does not imply sustained changes or brain injury.
More research is required to track soccer players for longer periods to examine whether these changes are temporary or forever, whether they are reliant on repeated sub-concussive blows, and whether they have the same implications for male soccer players.
The authors concluded:
"To our knowledge, these results provide the first evidence that even sub-concussive blows in soccer could lead to measureable, even if possibly transient, cognitive changes in young soccer players."
Sports-related head trauma has been in the news frequently as of late. Several National Football League players are suing the organization saying the league should have acted sooner to deal with serious head injuries. The severity and long-lasting effects of head trauma are now being seen in a new, more detailed light.
Written by Kelly Fitzgerald