American professional football and ice hockey have been in the public limelight for the possible long-term brain damage done by repeated head impacts sustained in both sports. Now, U.K. researchers have probed whether professional soccer players who repeatedly head the ball sustain microscopic brain damage that is linked to dementia. In a first-of-its-kind study, scientists examined the brains of soccer players who developed dementia before dying. In all the players, the researchers found signs characteristic of the degenerative disease called chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), which has been associated with repetitive head trauma. As BBC reports, the study was published yesterday in Acta Neuropathologica. In it, researchers followed 14 men who were former soccer players—13 professionals and one committed amateur. They played for an average of 26 years and “all were skilled headers of the ball,” the authors wrote. All had developed dementia and been followed until death. The brains of six were examined and all showed “some features supportive of CTE,” the scientists wrote. Four of the six showed the hallmark abnormalities that comprise the currently agreed on definition of CTE. In these four cases, the finding of CTE “is probably related to their past prolonged exposure to repetitive head impacts from head-to-player collisions and heading the ball thousands of time throughout their careers,” the authors write. But David Reynolds, chief scientific officer of Alzheimer’s Research UK in Cambridge, cautioned against overinterpreting the findings, noting that the links between head injury and dementia are just beginning to be explored in depth. The study “highlights the need for further research,” he said. “We can’t tell what ultimately caused these players to develop dementia and this study doesn’t suggest that people who play [soccer] are at a greater risk of dementia than the general population.”
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