A team of Scottish experts behind a landmark study into the risks posed by heading footballs have called for more funding to provide “definitive answers”.
Researchers at the University of Stirling say advances in neuroscience are opening up new areas of exploration into the health risks faced by footballers but stress that such work requires a “robust” funding commitment.
Staff at the university played a key role in a BBC investigation, presented by former England international footballer, Alan Shearer, into the issue.
The programme – Alan Shearer: Dementia, Football and Me – included footage of Shearer undergoing tests in a lab at Stirling, where academics have, for the first time, found direct evidence of brain changes immediately after heading a ball.
The Football Association and Professional Footballers Association have commissioned research into whether the degenerative neurocognitive disease is more common in ex-professional footballers than the rest of the population.
While the team at Stirling – cognitive neuroscientist, Dr Magdalena Ietswaart, and Dr Angus Hunter, reader in exercise physiology – have welcomed this research, they said more funding was essential to make progress.
Dr Ietswaart said: “We do not yet know whether there is a definitive link between football and dementia. This can only be discovered by carrying out research in this area.
“Scientific developments open up a new approach that is achievable but requires a robust funding drive. If you want real answers, you need to understand what is happening in the brain; what is cause and effect, the approach we use here at Stirling.”
As part of the BBC programme, which aired last night, Shearer visited Stirling and underwent tests that showed immediate brain changes after heading the ball – the same changes observed in participants who took part in the landmark study.
The research, published in EBioMedicine, is the first to show direct evidence for short-term sub-concussive changes in the brain following any sport-related impact. After meeting the Stirling team, Shearer said: “Football should be encouraging these universities to do as much research as possible but, like everything else, these universities need funding.
“There’s enough money around nowadays in football but not enough of it is being given to research. It is about time we had more definitive answers.”
Dr Hunter said the findings of the Stirling study should “provide the stimulus” for further scientific research to be carried out.