Soccer is the most popular sport in 93 countries around the world, but a new study indicates a crucial part of the game could lead to brain degeneration.

Researchers in New York City have discovered players who head the ball regularly suffer from brain abnormalities that resemble those found in patients with traumatic brain injury. "Heading a soccer ball is not an impact of a magnitude that will lacerate nerve fibers in the brain," said Dr. Michael Lipton of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx, New York. "But repetitive heading could set off a cascade of responses that can lead to degeneration of brain cells."

Scientists used diffusion tensor imaging to study the effects of heading on 32 amateur soccer players whose average age was 30.8 years and who have played the sport since childhood.

The research showed a threshold level of between 1,000 to 1,500 heads per year. After soccer players in the study went beyond that point, scientists found a meaningful falling off in attention, memory, executive functioning and higher-order visual functions.

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Clearly heading won't be taken out of soccer, but the study determined that there appears to be a safe range for heading frequency. Researchers hope the findings of the study will be taken into consideration to protect the 240 million soccer players around the world.

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