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Tuesday, 11 November 2008

Motor Neurone Disease and Professional Football

In the 1970s it was finally accepted that playing football could result in brain damage. The Encyclopedia of British Football (2002) pointed out: "On wet days the ball grew increasingly heavy as the leather soaked up large amounts of liquid. This, together with the lacing that protected the valve of the bladder, made heading the ball not only unpleasant but also painful and dangerous." A large number of football players in the past have suffered long-term brain damage because of repeated heading of a heavy, wet ball. Several top footballers in the 1950s and 1960s have suffered developing dementia in later life.

Research carried out by D. R. Williams in 2002 concluded that repetitive mild head trauma over the course of an amateur and professional footballer's career may increase an individual's risk of developing dementia in later life. Former players who have suffered from this disease include Joe Mercer, Bob Paisley, Stan Cullis, Bill Shorthouse, Peter Broadbent and Malcolm Allison. In 2002 a coroner said it was likely that the death of former West Bromwich Albion centre-forward, Jeff Astle, had been caused by "repeated small traumas to the brain".

In the 1970s leather footballs were coated with a special polyurethane preparation, which eliminated water absorption during games. Footballs used today combine a latex bladder with an outer casing made from synthetic leather. It was believed that this would eliminate brain damage in football players. However, recent research shows this is not the case.

Recently there has been concerns about the possible connections between motor neurone disease (MND) and professional football. In 2007 Ammar Al-Chalabi, a neurologist at King's College Hospital called on the Football Association to investigate whether the sport contributed to MND. It was pointed out that Don Revie, Jimmy Johnstone and Rob Hindmarch had all died of the disease.

Several top Italian footballers have also suffered from MND. This includes Gianluca Signorini, Adriano Lombardi and Stefano Borgonovo. Adriano Chio, a neurologist and Italy's foremost expert on the condition, has shown that professional footballers in the country are seven times more likely to develop MND than others. He discovered that 41 players had suffered from MND since 1973.

According to one theory, the incurable disease might be linked to pesticides used on football pitches. Others suggest it could be a result of performance enhancing drugs, the treatment used to combat physical injuries or repeatedly heading the ball.

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