The sound of grunting wrestlers, squeaking basketball shoes against polished floors and the repetitive heading of soccer balls are all familiar sounds during the winter sports trimester.
Headers are an essential part of soccer whether used to score a goal or pass the ball to a teammate; however, recent studies conducted by senior Marsha Zhang show that even the seemingly harmless drill of heading a soccer ball can lead to minor traumatic brain injury.
When Zhang began Scientific Research and Design (SRD) her sophomore year, she had no idea what she wanted to focus on.
“I started reading articles about eye tracking and color. Eye trackers can be used to see two distinct colors that overlap at the same time,” Zhang said.
While researching about eye trackers, Zhang came across Dr. Anne Sereno’s research on the web and decided to contact her.
For the next two summers, Zhang worked with undergraduates and graduates at Sereno’s lab in the Neurobiology and Anatomy department at the University of Texas (UT) Medical School.
“I spent the summer after my sophomore year doing preliminary data analysis,” Zhang said. “During junior year, I started formulating the idea around August and thought up an experiment.”
Zhang was inspired while volunteering at The Institute for Rehabilitation and Research (TIRR). TIRR is a rehabilitation center for brain and spinal cord injury.
“A lot of patients were former athletes, so they always talk about how dangerous the field of sports was,” Zhang said. “I chose to focus on soccer because my sister was playing soccer at that time.”
Zhang’s work revolves around involuntary and voluntary responses. Pro-point is a reflexive movement whereas anti-point is a voluntary response, which requires more brain function and processing. Research shows a correlation between voluntary response times and how well the brain functions and processes. A slower voluntary response time than the control indicates slight brain damage.
Based on her research, Zhang decided to create an app that could test brain injuries by tracking eye movement.
“I didn’t do the actual programming, but I wanted to design an app that could perform pro-point and anti-point tasks,” Zhang said. “I got SJS’s approval by January. Afterwards, I started testing the soccer players and completed data analysis in May.”
Zhang tested 12 girls’ soccer players and 12 girls that did not engage in any contact sports. She discovered that the soccer players had a slower voluntary response time when compared to the control group. This suggested that the task of heading a soccer ball can cause slight brain damage.
“The soccer players would commit more errors,” Zhang said. “We did significance tests on our cognitive results, and they were significant enough to distinguish mild traumatic brain injury much less than the level of a concussion.”
“It’s crazy to think something I’ve done so much could be so detrimental,” sophomore soccer player Taylor Welch said.
Although Zhang’s iPad app is not open to everyone, she recently submitted it for patent. The app glitches, crashes and sometimes refuses to run, but Zhang retains high hopes for her app on the market.
“Although it can be rather finicky at times, it still accurately measures time, and the results are fine. I still have to refine it more so that it can be used in the medical field in the future,” Zhang said. “If someone is on the field and suddenly gets dizzy, taking my app test can either indicate a minor bruise or a trip to the hospital.”
The app can also be used for other contact sports or to track the progression of neurological disorders like Alzheimer.
“There have been a lot of other similar studies with regards to other sports like football and lacrosse. The Los Angeles Times did an article about how soccer ball heading causes minor injury,” Zhang said. “What makes my research different is the method of how we detect brain injury. The LA times featured the use of fancy equipment, MRI scanning and labs in order to analyze cognitive performance. My app is inexpensive, efficient and non-invasive.”
During the summer before her senior year, Zhang wrote a paper and submitted it to PLOS ONE, a peer-reviewed, open-access, online journal for scientific studies.
“Once I realized my data was substantial, I decided to write a paper and submit it to a scientific journal,” Zhang said. “The journal approved it with only minor revisions. They accepted the paper in December, and it got published in February.”
From there, Zhang’s work has been featured in many media outlets such as NBC Nightly News, the New York Times, US News and World Report and Yahoo! News.
“I’ve never imagined that my project would herald such extensive news coverage because it’s very rare that high school students are recognized for their work,” Zhang said. “It is really awesome that this app is getting such wide coverage. It’s just another step towards more convenient medical diagnostics.”
Besides submitting her article to PLOS ONE, Zhang also entered her research in the Siemens Westinghouse Competition.
“The rules to enter Siemens explicitly prohibit any topics on social behavioral sciences. I still sent in my paper just because,” Zhang said.
“I appreciate SRD because it was a cool opportunity to learn how to research, and I’m glad that more and more students are taking interest in the program. I’m glad I learned how to design an experiment and analyze data, and I’m lucky that my research produced a really cool product as a result,” Zhang said. “I’m going to work on it a little bit over the summer, but I’m not sure I’m going to continue on in college. Instead of what you’d expect with my SRD project and everything, I’m actually thinking of concentrating in economics or international relations in college.”
Read Zhang’s article “Evidence of Cognitive Dysfunction after Soccer Playing with Ball Heading Using a Novel Tablet-Based Approach” on PLOS ONE here.