Dr. Anne Sereno believes a tablet application may one day help trainers track the effect of heading soccer balls.
With hundreds of millions reported to play soccer worldwide, it should come as no surprise that a study on the impact of heading a soccer ball on cognition is making headlines across the globe.

Dr. Anne Sereno, professor of neurobiology and anatomy, reports in PLOS One that her research team was able to detect small but statistically significant changes in cognitive performance among players. Sereno’s co-authors include: Marsha Zhang, Stuart Red, Angela Lin, and Dr. Saumil Patel, who is now at Baylor College of Medicine.

Following a practice by a female high school soccer team, 12 players, who headed a ball on average six times, were asked to perform two tasks on a touch-screen tablet, said Sereno, the study’s senior author. Twelve female non-soccer players were also tested for comparison.

The first task involved pointing to a target light appearing on the tablet, and there was no difference between groups. The second task, slightly harder, involved pointing away from the light, and the response times of the soccer players were 30 to 45 milliseconds slower.

“Findings are in stark contrast to previous studies in young and adult subjects that have not reported any loss in executive function associated with soccer ball heading,” Sereno said. Executive function is a term that refers to cognitive processes such as attention, working memory, or impulse control.

“Our results provide the first evidence that subconcussive blows can lead to measureable cognitive changes in young soccer players,” she said.

Sereno believes this tablet application could one day be used by trainers on the sidelines to track the effect of heading soccer balls, which some scientists have likened to the impact of a punch by an amateur boxer. It also could be used in other contact sports.

Nationally, Sereno’s research was featured on NBC Nightly News and locally on the NBC affiliate in Houston  – KPRC Channel 2 .  International outlets reporting on the findings include: The Australian; Wissenschaft (Germany); The New Zealand Herald; Belfast Telegraph (UK); Daily Mail (UK); China Daily;  India Vision News; and La Vanguardia (Spain).

-Rob Cahill, Office of Advancement, Media Relations