Groundbreaking study finds significant brain changes in league players

The Sydney Morning Herald

June 7, 2020

The retired NRL players – four of whom had been out of the game for less than a year when agreeing to take part in the study – ranged in age from 30 to 44. They self-reported the number of concussions they had had during their career and the age when they suffered their first and last head knock.

The players had an average of 38.4 concussions throughout their careers with a median of 20. The study found an average of 7.7 head knocks per player involved a loss of consciousness.

Even allowing for significantly higher alcohol use in the NRL players compared to the control group, the publishers determined there was still a distinguishable difference in white matter brain tissue in the former footballers.

There was, however, no significant variance between the players and the control group in depression, anxiety or stress levels.

When approached by the Herald the co-authors declined to comment publicly on the findings, but insisted the paper is only one of a number of concussion-related rugby league studies under way.

“The NRL is currently partnering with the University of Newcastle and the Spaulding Research Institute at Harvard Medical School in one of the world’s largest studies into head injuries and brain health in collision sport,” an NRL spokesperson said.

“On the field we have introduced the injury surveillance bunker and sideline injury surveillance technology, which uses latest Hawk Eye technology to identify potential head injuries. Player welfare is our absolute priority, which is why the game continues to invest in both prevention measures and new research to learn more about these issues.”

The authors want future research to have a larger number of participants to further explore the link between sport concussion and brain structure alterations.

Dr Gardner is heading up a new research team to investigate the effects of concussion on current and former NRL players.

The NRL has provided an initial grant of $250,000 for the work, which also has the backing of Harvard Medical School. It wants to lobby Australian governments for millions of dollars in extra funding after the “milestone moment” for the game in the form of the initial grant.

Last year the Australian Sports Brain Bank identified the degenerative brain disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in two former professional rugby league players. The Sun-Herald revealed the first to show symptoms was Bulldogs legend Steve Folkes, whose family agreed to discuss his condition after his death.

Peter Moscatt, a member of Eastern Suburbs’ 1972 grand final side, was only the second player to be identified as showing symptoms of CTE.

While this is a small study, I believe the findings are significant and worthy of public attention.

Dr Chris Nowinski

One of the world’s leading concussion researchers Dr Chris Nowinski said the study on NRL players was significant.

“While this is a small study, I believe the findings are significant and worthy of public attention,” said Concussion Legacy Foundation founder Nowinski, who visited Sydney late last year for a public seminar.

“Based on the existing literature on the long-term effects of repeated head impacts and changes in brain pathology, the fact that this study solely focuses on self-reported concussions, and does not consider or mention the established relationship between the years of exposure and brain changes, is puzzling.

“For example, our study of 266 deceased former American football players found that each additional year of play increases the odds of developing CTE by 30 per cent. A separate study found that years of contact sports play was associated with a significantly increased risk of Lewy body disease [a common form of dementia].”

NRL coaches have previously endorsed the idea of an 18th man being part of game-day squads to cover a player who is ruled out of a match because of a head knock, an idea that was put to the code’s Project Apollo committee.

The NSW Rugby League introduced an 18th man concussion substitute for the Canterbury Cup competition this year before the season was shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Knights captain Mitchell Pearce was earlier this week named to play in Newcastle’s clash against Canberra at Campbelltown on Sunday, a week after being knocked out in his side’s draw with Penrith

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