How ex-footballers have become dementia guineas pigs 


November 18, 2020

Prominent neuroscientist Dr Michael Grey has added to the call for football’s authorities to do more to tackle dementia after revealing he has been met with silence since lobbying the PFA and the FA more than a year ago.

Dr Grey, who is running a study on dozens of former professional footballers including Mark Bright and ex-Wales international Iwan Roberts, has backed Sportsmail’s campaign and the seven-point charter launched this week.

His SCORES project at the University of East Anglia is currently recruiting for what he believes is the only study to monitor and track changing brain health in players via online tests every three months.

According to Dr Grey, he made contact with the PFA’s deputy chief executive John Bramhall in September 2019, to ask them to flag up and endorse the study to their 4,000 members. He claims he was referred to the FA but after a conversation with their head of medicine, Dr Charlotte Cowie, the trail went cold.

He told Sportsmail: ‘This is a very important area and for that reason I support the Daily Mail’s campaign. I do think the PFA and FA should be doing more and they should especially be doing more to help players who are still with us — those players who are ageing and may be struggling.

‘I contacted the PFA a little more than a year ago and had a 30-minute discussion. I thought it went well but they decided the FA needed to get involved. As soon as the FA got involved, it just seemed as if everything was buried.

‘To be clear, I never asked for money. I asked them to endorse the project, to help us to get players to sign up. When I spoke to Dr Cowie, the head of medicine at the FA, she told me there would soon be a call for research and we could apply. But there has been no call for research and that was more than a year ago.

‘What this means, beyond anything to do with funding, is that we have to go around the PFA and FA to get people interested in joining us, which is difficult. I think players are reluctant because we do not have the endorsement of the PFA or the FA.’

Sportsmail’s campaign has been created to push for further assistance from the authorities for important research, with footballers found by Dr Willie Stewart’s FIELD study to be three-and-a-half times more likely to die from neurodegenerative disease than the general population.

Earlier this week the PFA responded to Sportsmail’s questions about Dr Stewart’s landmark work by contributing funding. But they have come under scrutiny for not investing more in an issue that has gained increased awareness in recent years. Their accounts for 2018 and 2019 showed they had put £325,000 into dementia and concussion research for that time period.

‘There are some very interesting studies around this topic,’ said Dr Grey, whose sample includes 34 former professional players over the age of 40, a further 40 amateurs and a control group of 34.

‘One is the HEADING study and the other is the FIELD study. The FIELD study looked at the medical records of the deceased. Ours is more similar to the lab-based HEADING study who aim to test 300 former professional footballers.

‘What is important about our study is the tests are conducted at home and we follow people over time so we can see the rate of change of their brain health. If we see there might be a problem we can signpost the former player to get help much earlier than would otherwise be possible. I remain hopeful that the PFA will see the value in our approach — it is complementary to the HEADING study rather than competition.’

A statement from the PFA read: ‘As well as funding three research projects, the PFA is also working with The Drake Foundation on the HEADING Study, using our member database to recruit former players to help examine the link between heading the ball and long-term cognitive function. The research targets the same demographic as the University of East Anglia, so we need to complete the current study before we can consider future proposals.’

The FA have defended their efforts and pointed to three studies that they have supported. In a statement they said: ‘The FA has helped to lead the way in ground-breaking research and we have an unwavering commitment to support objective, robust and thorough research. We recognise the importance of this issue.

‘We are collaborating closely with our independently-chaired research taskforce to expand our own research studies — most notably, using the findings of the FIELD study to understand what causes the observed increased risk of death from neurodegenerative disorders in the analysed group of former professional footballers, which is currently unknown.

‘In addition, we are also supporting ongoing independent research studies which are looking into the impact of head injuries in football.’

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