billy mcphail: Failed in legal bid before his death in 2003.
Experts found that players developed brain abnormalities that mirrored those found in patients with traumatic brain injuries.
The report comes more than 13 years after former Celtic striker Billy McPhail failed in a legal bid to prove he suffered pre-senile dementia from heading heavy old leather footballs in the 1950s.
Mr McPhail had developed a neuro-degenerative disease that he blamed on heading the ball. He compared the force of it to being repeatedly punched by a middle-weight boxer.
He had attempted to prove his condition stemmed from his work so he would qualify for an industrial injuries disablement payment. However, the case was thrown out by an industrial tribunal in Glasgow and the former player died in 2003.
The scientists’findings appear to confirm fears raised by other studies that suggest heading a ball repeatedly has health repercussions.
The Radiological Society of North America used a magnetic resonance technique called diffusion tensor imaging to scan the brains of 32 amateur football players aged in their thirties who had played the game since childhood.
They found those who performed 1000 to 1500 headers a year suffered damage in five regions of the brain responsible for attention, memory, executive functioning and higher-order visual functions.
Researchers also found movement of water in the brain’s white matter, considered critical to a healthy brain, was restricted in players who used their head more often.
Michael Lipton, associate director of the Gruss Magnetic Resonance Research Centre at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, said heading the ball once would not cause any damage, but the effects were accumulative over time.
He said: “Heading a soccer ball is not an impact of a magnitude that will lacerate nerve fibres in the brain. But repetitive heading could set off a cascade of responses that can lead to degeneration of brain cells.
“Given that soccer is the most popular sport worldwide and is played extensively by children, these are findings that should be taken into consideration in order to protect soccer players.”
In 2009, Canadian researchers revealed people concussed in their youth show signs of mental and physical problems more than 30 years later. The study found athletes with a history of concussion in sports such as rugby had worse physical and mental test scores.
The dangers of heading a ball have been widely debated within Scottish football, but have not been formally recognised.
However, any player who suffers a head injury is advised to register it by the Scottish Professional Footballers’ Association, who have called for greater protection for players.
Research is also currently under way on a ground-breaking study examining the link between head injuries and Alzheimer’s Disease at the Southern General Hospital in Glasgow. The effect on brain pathology of head injuries suffered playing rugby and in assaults forms part of the study.