New, unpublished research, presented in November at the annual Society for Neuroscience conference suggests female soccer players experience greater brain damage from heading the ball than men do. The injury occurs in white matter tracts — the long, branch-like nerve fibers, or axons, that extend from neurons, crisscross the brain and connect different regions. The research team scanned the brains of nearly 100 men and women, all amateur soccer players in their 20s and 30s. The difference in how each gender responded to the same number of impacts was noticeable: Across all the women, eight different brain regions had injured white matter, while in the men, just three did. And overall, the women saw a five-fold increase in affected tissue compared to men. There are two theories as to why women experience greater brain damage: biomechanics and sex hormones. Women typically have weaker neck muscles and lower body mass than men, so it’s possible that a woman’s head (and brain) absorbs more of the ball’s force than a man’s does.
Regardless of gender, for soccer players, the damage isn’t caused by a single traumatic incident, like a concussion, but by repeated minor hits. As headers accumulate, the frequent impacts can trigger inflammation in the brain, eventually leading to neurodegeneration.