The Boston University School of Medicine has conducted groundbreaking studies on the brain injuries suffered by male football players. Now, BU is embarking on a high-profile effort to learn more about the long-term effects of repeated headers in women’s soccer.
On Thursday, soccer icons Brandi Chastain and Michelle Akers announced they would participate in BU’s study on Soccer, Head Impacts and Neurological Effects — or SHINE.
The study will follow 20 former high-level female soccer players, all of whom will be 40 or older, to determine whether headers cause the degenerative brain disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy.
BU has studied the effects of CTE on the brains of many well-known deceased football players, including the late Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez.
In June 2016, BU revealed a $16 million, seven-year study aimed at detecting CTE in living brains. The study was the largest to date of living former football players and included 240 men ages 45 to 74.
Dr. Arthur Toga, a neurology professor at University of Southern California, said the SHINE study’s findings could affect how soccer is played, especially at the youth level.
“As the sport becomes increasingly popular for little kids, we need to ask, ‘is this something we need to consider?’” Toga said during a phone interview Thursday evening. “Maybe little kids shouldn’t be doing headers.”
During an interview aired Thursday by “CBS This Morning” interview, Chastain, 50, and Akers, 53, both discussed how often they would take headers during their respective careers.
Soccer players routinely use their heads to pass, shoot, or clear the ball. Researchers want to know whether these repeated blows are having an effect on brain health. Akers said she often headed the ball 50 times a game.
“I would not be heading a million balls like that,” Akers told CBS. “There’s no way on Earth I would do that again.”
BU researchers involved in the study were not immediately available for comment. But BU neurology professor Dr. Robert Stern, who is leading the study with Dr. Jesse Mez, told CBS the research could have major implications because of soccer’s global popularity.
Study participants will spend two days in Boston, where they’ll undergo various neurological tests, including an MRI of the brain and evaluation of cognitive function, CBS reported.
Participants must have played at least five years of organized soccer, with at least two of those years occurring after high school, according to a statement from the Concussion Legacy Foundation, which is funding the effort along with the National Institute on Aging. Participants must have at least one year at the professional level or have been on a national or Olympic team.