Health Scan: using your head isn’t always smart

Soccer players take note: Players using their heads to butt the ball are at high risk for brain injury and cognitive impairment, research says.

By
December 10, 2011 23:09
Soccer players headding the ball [illustrative]

Soccer players headding the ball 311. (photo credit: Thinkstock/Imagebank)

 
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Soccer players who use their heads to butt the ball are at high risk for brain injury and cognitive impairment, according to researchers at Yeshiva University’s Albert Einstein College of Medicine and Montefiore Medical Center in New York.

Using advanced imaging techniques and cognitive tests, they used diffusion tensor imaging, an advanced MRI-based imaging technique, on 38 amateur soccer players with an average age of 30.8 years who had all played the sport since childhood. Each was asked to recall the number of times they “headed” the ball during the past year – heading is when players hit or field the soccer ball with their head.

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Researchers ranked the players based on heading frequency and then compared the brain images of the most frequent headers with those of the remaining players.

They found that frequent headers showed brain injury similar to that seen in patients with concussion, also known as mild traumatic brain injury.

Presenting their findings recently at the Radiological Society of North America in Chicago, they said the findings were especially worrisome since soccer is the world’s most popular sport and is increasingly popular in the US, especially among children.

Of the 18 million Americans who play soccer, 78 percent are under the age of 18. Soccer balls are known to travel at speeds as high as 55 kilometers per hour during recreational play and more than twice that during professional play.

“Our goal was to determine if there is a threshold level for heading frequency that, when surpassed, resulted in detectable brain injury,” said lead author Dr, Michael Lipton, director of Einstein’s Gruss Magnetic Resonance Research Center. Further analysis revealed a threshold level of 1,000 to 1,500 heads per year; once players in the study exceeded that number, researchers observed significant injury.



“Heading a soccer ball is not an impact of a magnitude that will lacerate nerve fibers in the brain,” Lipton said. “But repetitive heading may set off a cascade of responses that can lead to degeneration of brain cells.”

FASTING & EXERCISE MAY REDUCE ALZHEIMER RISK

Intermittent fasting and vigorous exercise on a regular basis may reduce the risk for Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and other neurodegenerative diseases, according to an expert on aging from the US National Institutes of Health.

Speaking at Bar-Ilan University, where he received the Dr. Tovi Comet-Walerstein Science Award from the BIU’s Cancer, AIDS and Immunology Research (CAIR) Institute, Dr. Mark Mattson said that intermittent fasting – not necessary completely, but limiting intake to 500 calories two days per week – has very good effects on the brain in animal models.

“We found that if we reduce the energy intake of rats and mice in models of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s that nerve cells would be more resistant to becoming dysfunctional and degenerating so that, essentially, we could slow down the disease process by reducing energy intake,” he said. “Conversely, if we put mouse models of Alzheimer’s disease on a high energy diet of high fat and fructose [corn syrup], this would accelerate the disease process,” he added.

The intermittent energy restriction placed on the animals consisted of either fasting twice a week with the addition of one small meal at the end of the fasting day, or calorie restriction in which they were given 30% fewer calories than the amount required by their bodies.

Mattson is now translating his work on dietary energy intake into human terms.

“We don’t know for sure yet, but I would predict that the risk for Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s would be decreased if a person fasts longterm and also exercises, particularly in middle age,” said Mattson. “This is more of a preventative strategy than a treatment,” he added.

Once patients become symptomatic with these neurodegenerative diseases, Mattson explained, much damage has already occurred. He thinks it may one day be possible to determine whether a patient is likely to develop Alzheimer’s and start intervention early.

“We’re also interested in finding out if there are ways to mimic the effects of dietary energy restriction or exercise with drugs or perhaps natural products like chemicals in plants, fruits and vegetables,” he said.

Refuting conventional wisdom, he said fasting is also recommended for type 2 diabetics.

“The reason doctors will say to eat many small meals is so that you don’t get big spikes [in sugar levels], but eating many small meals is bad because it will increase insulin resistance.

In a human study we looked at insulin sensitivity and the alternate-day fasting diet very clearly increased insulin sensitivity,” he says, adding that fasting improves glucose regulation and the cardiovascular system.

NEW CLUES TO OSTEOARTHRITIS

The degenerative joint disease of osteoarthritis (OA), which affects millions around the world, is very debilitating and is more common as people age. Now, researchers at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s faculty of dental medicine and the US National Institutes of Health have moved a step closer to a better understanding of the biological mechanism involved in the onset of OA.

The disease causes the matrix structure comprising cartilage in the joints to be significantly diminished, inflicting severe frictional pain and restricting joint movement.

One reason for this phenomenon is reduced matrix production and gene expression.

SirT1 is a nuclear enzyme that regulates the expression of many genes through alterations in the structure of chromatin, which is a combination of DNA and other proteins that make up the contents of the cell nucleus. In laboratory work carried out at HU’s laboratory of cartilage biology, scientists headed by Dr.

Mona Dvir-Ginzberg showed that SirT1 positively regulates the expression of many cartilage-tissue components.

This data, published in the Arthritis and Rheumatism journal, showed that when there is joint inflammation, SirT1 degenerates and is inactivated, thereby accelerating joint destruction through altered gene expression.

Understanding these events will enable the design of drug targets to serve as potential therapies that may retard or reverse OA by boosting SirT1 production. Additionally, testing of SirT1 levels could serve as an early indicator for OA susceptibility and thus serve as a signal for starting treatment in time.

“Developing a combined strategy for diagnosis and treatment based on these data could provide an efficient alternative for joint replacement surgery and enable susceptible individuals to experience a better quality of life for years to come,” said Dvir-Ginzberg.

GENES & SUICIDE

A new study from Toronto’s Center for Addiction and Mental Health has found evidence that a specific gene is linked to suicidal behavior, adding to our knowledge of the many complex causes of suicide.

This research may help doctors one day target the gene in prevention efforts. In the past, studies have implicated the gene for brainderived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which is involved in nervous system development, in suicidal behavior.

After pooling results from 11 previous studies and adding their own study data involving schizophrenics, the Canadian scientists confirmed that among people with a psychiatric diagnosis, those with the methionine variation of the gene had a higher risk of suicidal behavior compared to those with the valine variation. The review, published in the International Journal of Neuropsychopharmacology, included data from 3,352 people, of whom 1,202 had a history of suicidal behavior.

“Our findings may lead to the testing and development of treatments that target this gene in order to help prevent suicide,” said Dr. James Kennedy, director of neuroscience research. “In the future, if other researchers can replicate and extend our findings, genetic testing may be possible to help identify people at increased risk for suicide.”

As the low-functioning BDNF variation is a risk factor for suicidal behavior, it may also be possible to develop a compound to increase the factor’s functioning, Kennedy suggested.

“Our findings provide a small piece of the puzzle on what causes suicidal behavior. When assessing a person’s suicide risk, it’s also important to consider environmental risk factors, such as early childhood or recent trauma, the use of addictive drugs or medications and other factors,” he said.

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