BU researchers seek thousands of former soccer, football players for head impact study

The Boston Globe

March 7, 2022

Are you at least 40 years old? Did you play soccer or tackle football at some level? Boston University researchers would like to hear from you.

The researchers are launching a new study, in collaboration with the University of California San Francisco, that will ask former players to take an annual online survey. The data gathered from thousands of participants will be scrutinized to see how repetitive head impacts from playing the two sports may have affected people later in life, BU said in a statement.

Many Americans are exposed to repetitive head impacts through contact and collision sports. And concussions aren’t the only thing to worry about, said the study’s leader, Robert Stern, director of clinical research for the BU Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy Center and professor of neurology, neurosurgery and anatomy, and neurobiology at BU School of Medicine.

“We know that when it comes to long-term problems, it’s not just concussions. Concussions are just the tip of the iceberg,” he said. “What seems to be much more important are what we refer to as subconcussive trauma. Those are the blows to the brain that don’t result in symptoms of concussion and are part of routine play of many contact and collision sports. But we don’t know the specifics.”

Researchers are hoping to answer questions such as: Is heading in soccer an important risk factor? How many hits to the head are too many? Is the age that someone starts experiencing hits important? Are there differences depending on the positions of players? Are there differences in the effect of head impacts on men and women? And does the risk vary by whether you played the sport at the youth, high school, college, or pro level?

“We want to determine whether subconcussive head impacts from ordinary plays, such as heading a soccer ball or routine blocking and tackling in football, increase risk for later life mood and behavioral changes, as well as for memory and thinking impairments,” researcher Dr. Michael Weiner, professor of radiology and biomedical imaging, medicine, psychiatry, and neurology at UCSF, said in the statement.

The Head Impact & Trauma Surveillance Study (HITSS) will be the largest study of its kind, BU said. It will be funded by a five-year grant from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke and the National Institute on Aging.

The study is being conducted in conjunction with the UCSF Brain Health Registry survey, which Weiner directs, an existing project aimed at answering questions about Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and other brain disorders.

The BU-led survey includes questions about sports participation, head impact exposure, and concussion and medical history. It includes computerized memory and cognitive tests, and behavior and mood questionnaires, officials said. It can be completed in about two hours, over several days if desired.

BU’s Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy Center is well known for its groundbreaking work on CTE, a degenerative brain disease caused by repeated injuries to the head. The center has found CTE in the brains of hundreds of deceased former football players, as well as in other athletes. The new study takes a different angle by looking at a large number of living people in a bid to “understand better the specific risk factors for later-life brain health changes,” Stern said.

BU said a national campaign would be launched to enroll thousands of people. Researchers are hoping to sign up at least 4,800 participants.

Familiar faces from soccer and football have already been enlisted for the recruitment campaign. The HITSS website, HITSS.org, lists “ambassadors” such as former soccer player Brandi Chastain, former football player Warren Sapp, and sportscaster Bob Costas.

“I love the game of football. It has given me so much. And I want to give back to the game,” Sapp said in a statement posted on the website. “I want the game to be better. And to make it better, we have to learn what the risks are. I wonder, with all the tackling I did, all those hits that I gave out, will they have an impact on my brain or my memory as I get older? We need answers to those questions.”

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