Storelli taps Stirling Brains for a new study aimed at decreasing brain injury associated with soccer heading

Jan 1, 2020

University of Stirling PhD researcher Daniel O’Gorman looks at the heading research already carried out at Stirling – and what can be done next.

STIRLING BRAINS cares about protecting soccer heads the way we do. But they're smarter than us. That's why we're announcing our support of a new study aimed at  mitigating risk in soccer heading, and the positive impact head protection can have.

An introduction to the study from Daniel O'Gorman:

Heading a football is a routine occurrence in The Beautiful Game, all the way from youth level through to those playing professionally on the world stage.

Soccer is a unique sport in that repetitive impacts of the head frequently occur during matches and training. This is due to the integral role of heading in both offensive and defensive play. Despite appearing inconsequential, heading might affect a player’s brain health according to recent research. Furthermore, there is a debate about whether heading is linked to an increased risk of dementia in later life.

To understand how heading affects the brain on a chronic scale, we first must understand the effects of heading on brain health in the short-term.


Stirling Brains Soccer Heading Research

Research conducted by Stirling Brains at the University of Stirling in 2016 suggests that just a single session of heading can disrupt the normal balance of chemicals in the brain, as well as cause a temporary memory impairment.

To assess the chemical balance in the brain we used a sensitive neuroscientific research technique called Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS). TMS involves placing a coil over a person’s head which generates a brief magnetic pulse in order to stimulate a small area of the brain.

This, combined with placing electrodes over the muscle, can measure neural signals from the brain to the muscle. Together this helps us understand the level of inhibitory chemicals in the brain.

These chemicals can block certain signals in the brain which might make muscles more difficult to control. The particular inhibitory chemical we are interested in is Gamma-Aminobutyric Acid (GABA). GABA is the most powerful inhibitor in the brain’s motor system [1].

The Experiment

Our research team assessed amateur soccer players repeatedly heading soccer balls fired from a machine, to replicate a corner kick [2]. The players headed the ball 20 times each. The researchers then assessed inhibition and memory function before and immediately after heading. We took these measurements again 24 hours, 48 hours and two weeks after the heading session.

This research was documented as part of a major BBC documentary ‘Alan Shearer: Dementia, Football and Me’, presented by legendary former England and Newcastle United striker Alan Shearer. Shearer took part in the experiment himself.

We found the heading session resulted in immediate changes in brain function. Increased inhibition was evident, along with a decrease in short and long-term memory function. However, these effects subsided after 24 hours.

Increased inhibition may affect muscle control which could leave soccer players at a greater risk of subsequent injury (e.g. lower limb) in training and match settings, a finding already reported in the concussion literature [3]. Furthermore, increased inhibition has been shown to reduce neuroplasticity [4], the ability of the brain to reorganise itself and form new neural connections, which is a key process implicated in learning and development [5]. This is particularly concerning for younger players of the game.

What is not known however is whether there is a cumulative effect of this biochemical and cognitive disruption when frequently repeated through heading during matches and training. Understanding the effects of heading on a chronic scale is a key future research question.


Insights and Future Research

While we have gained valuable insight into the acute effects of soccer heading, this is only the first step of a long journey to building a clearer picture of how heading affects brain health.

One next step would be to use brain imaging to visualise and understand how micro-damage to brain structure relates to changes in brain biochemistry. This will further allow us to understand what goes on in the brain after heading.

We also aim to build on our existing findings by answering several key research questions including:

1. Is the effect of heading the same in the male and female brain?

2. Do different types of headers (e.g. from corners kicks) affect the brain in the same way?

3. What amount of exposure to heading is safe?

4. Can soccer headgear protect against any potential effects of heading on brain health?

In an attempt to answer these questions, Stirling Brains will be conducting further research into the effects of soccer heading, using our sensitive research technique of TMS to assess inhibition, combined with a number of other innovative methodologies – such as analysis of cognitive and motor function.

We will also assess whether wearing a protective soccer headgear can mitigate any of the effects that soccer heading might have on brain health. Stirling Brains will conduct independent research with the support of Storelli Sports, an innovative sportswear company based in Brooklyn.

Reducing Head Injuries with Soccer Headgear?

Storelli has designed the ExoShield Soccer Head Guard. The Exoshield reduces impact in head-to-head and head-to-limb (e.g head-to-elbow) collisions, with the Virginia Tech Headgear Lab finding the product reduces the risk of soccer head injuries by an estimated 84%.

Furthermore, the ExoShield has been shown to significantly reduce the incidence of sports-related concussions (see supplementary data for concussion risk statistics) in interscholastic (aged 14-18) soccer players. The reduction in risk of concussion when wearing the ExoShield is approximately 60% when compared to wearing no headgear. This effect was particularly strong for female players.

Storelli Sports is supporting our new research into the impact of soccer heading and the potential benefits of protective soccer headgear. With the help of Storelli Sports, we will be able to further understand the relationship between heading and brain health. 


[1] Owens, D. F., & Kriegstein, A. R. (2002). Is there more to GABA than synaptic inhibition?. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 3(9), 715.

[2] Di Virgilio, T. G., Hunter, A., Wilson, L., Stewart, W., Goodall, S., Howatson, G., … & Ietswaart, M. (2016). Evidence for acute electrophysiological and cognitive changes following routine soccer heading. EBioMedicine, 13, 66-71.

[3] Toohey, L. A., Drew, M. K., Cook, J. L., Finch, C. F., & Gaida, J. E. (2017). Is subsequent lower limb injury associated with previous injury? A systematic review and meta-analysis. Br J Sports Med, 51(23), 1670-1678.

[4] Bachtiar, V., & Stagg, C. J. (2014). The role of inhibition in human motor cortical plasticity. Neuroscience, 278, 93-104.

[5] Galván, A. (2010). Neural plasticity of development and learning. Human brain mapping, 31(6), 879-890.

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