FURTHER scientific research is urgently required into the risks posed by heading footballs, according to experts at a Scottish university.

The call has been made following publicity about a number of famous footballers who have been diagnosed with dementia.

A special BBC1 report featuring investigations at Stirling University, to be broadcast tonight at 10.30pm, focuses on concerns there could be a link between heading the ball and brain health.

The documentary featured current and retired professional footballers, the relatives of former players diagnosed with dementia, and representatives of the Football Association (FA) and the Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA).

It showed footage of former England international Alan Shearer undergoing tests in a lab at Stirling, where academics last year found, for the first time, direct evidence of brain changes immediately after heading a ball.

The FA and PFA have commissioned research into whether dementia is more common in former professional footballers than the rest of the population.

However, cognitive neuroscientist Dr Magdalena Ietswaart and Dr Angus Hunter, reader in exercise physiology, say money is badly needed for more research.

“Scientific developments open up a new approach that is achievable but requires a robust funding drive,” Ietswaart said. “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.

“Until now, we did not have sensitive or direct ways to identify how moving a ball with your head can impact brain health. However, we now have stronger neuroscience emerging that can look directly at what goes on in the brain as a result of heading the ball. We have applied these techniques here at Stirling but there is a lot more that we and others can do to give definitive answers on the dangers of heading.

“Current neuroscience has substantial promise in providing the evidence base on the effects playing football has on brain health that is currently lacking.”

As part of the investigation, Shearer underwent tests at Stirling University 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, as with 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 definitive answers.”

Hunter echoed Shearer’s comments and said the findings of the Stirling study should form the basis of more in-depth scientific research.

He added: “Our study is the first to show changes in brain function after heading the ball. Combined with the anecdotal evidence, our research and this documentary should provide the stimulus for further scientific research to be carried out in this area.”

Ietswaart and Hunter were supported in the research by Stirling neuropsychologist Professor Lindsay Wilson and PhD student Tom Di Virgilio, consulting with leading Glasgow-based neuropathologist Dr Willie Stewart and others.

The study was funded by the National Institute of Health Research.

Alan Shearer, Dementia, Football and Me, will be available on BBC iPlayer after broadcast.