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Photo of girl in soccer uniform
May 14, 2021

Headed in a new direction

Written By: Tom Ziemer

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A teenage soccer player darts toward goal, accelerating away from a defender before leaping into the air, thrusting her head forward and thumping the airborne ball with her forehead past a helpless goalkeeper and into the back of the net. Skill, timing and athleticism converge to produce a textbook header—and a goal.

Christian Franck
Christian Franck

But at what cost to the player?

As awareness of concussions has risen in recent decades—and, more recently, research into the effects of sub-concussive impacts—debates about the safety of heading the ball in soccer have followed.

Christian Franck, the Grainger Institute for Engineering Associate Professor of mechanical engineering, is co-leading a project with researchers in the UW-Madison School of Medicine and Public Health and School of Nursing to examine the ramifications of headers among adolescent soccer players.

It’s part of Franck’s broader quest to define the forces inflicted upon brains and thresholds for injury in concussions and other traumatic brain injuries. In addition to looking at brain strain in soccer and football, Franck is working with companies in the cycling (Trek), construction (Milwaukee Tool) and military (Team Wendy) spaces to inform helmet and hard hat designs.

Current U.S. Youth Soccer rules bar players 10 and under from heading in games and practice, while limiting the number of headers for 11- and 12-year-olds to 25 per week. But the simple fact is the effects of headers haven’t been thoroughly studied in adults, let alone adolescents.

Using a seed grant from the UW-Madison Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research and Graduate Education, Franck and his collaborators will create computer models using MRI data and outfit players ages 12-17 with protective headbands containing sensors to record data. They’ll then feed those numbers into the computer models to generate brain motion data and see whether that mechanical loading is approaching dangerous levels. As part of the grant, Traci Snedden, an assistant professor in the School of Nursing, is also leading an effort to develop cognitive assessment tests that could help tease out links between brain changes and academic performance.

“I gravitate toward hard problems,” says Franck.

Franck is hoping to pin down the answer to what he calls the “golden question”—how much strain on a neuron is required to cause a concussion—in the next year. “We’re getting super close,” he says.


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