Almost a QUARTER of elite adult rugby players have brain structure abnormalities as a result of repeated head impacts, study warns  


  • Scientists in London assessed the brains of 44 male and female elite rugby players
  • They also found that they had an unexpected 50 percent reduction in brain volume.
  • Results may indicate damage and neurodegeneration like in Alzheimer’s disease

A highly concerning new study has uncovered the danger of repeated head impacts for rugby players.

After scanning 44 elite adult rugby players, experts found that 23 percent had abnormalities in brain structure, specifically in the white matter and blood vessels of the brain.

White matter primarily comprises nerve pathways, long expanses of nerve cells, and is vital to our cognitive ability.

The study also found that 50 percent of rugby players had an unexpected decrease in brain volume.

The non-profit Drake Foundation, which supported the study, is now calling for immediate changes to rugby protocol to ensure the long-term welfare of elite players.

Contact sports, including rugby, are already under the radar for their potential to have irreversible effects on the brain and even lead to dementia.

There is growing concern that contact sports could cause long-term problems. Photo Xander Fegerson during a match between the British and Irish Lions and DHL Stormers at Cape Town Stadium on July 17, 2021

The Drake Foundation has invested more than £2.2 million in rugby and football to research the short- and long-term effects of the sport on brain health.

Founder James Drake said, “I have invested nearly a decade in research into the relationship between head effects in sport and player brain health as I have been concerned about the long-term brain health of players, including elite rugby players. ”

‘Common sense dictates that the number and speed of impacts need to be significantly reduced, both in training and in actual play.

‘These latest results lend further support to this notion, especially when combined with existing findings in play and anecdotal evidence.’

Drake said the game of rugby has “changed beyond all recognition” since turning professional in the 1990s, becoming more dangerous.

“Players are now generally bigger and more powerful, so we have to be mindful of all the effects that will have an escalating effect on their bodies,” he said.

‘Seeing young players suffering from its consequences, I can’t believe the sport is any safer now than it was when I started The Drake Foundation in 2014.

‘More should be done for the safety of the players and without delay.’

White matter, the lighter tissue toward the center of the brain, carries signals between cells.  Gray matter is found mostly on the outermost layer of the brain, or cortex, and serves to process information.

White matter, the lighter tissue toward the center of the brain, carries signals between cells. Gray matter is found mostly on the outermost layer of the brain, or cortex, and serves to process information.

Dr Virginia Newcomb at the University of Cambridge, who was not involved in the study, said there is a growing concern that repeated blows to the head lead to long-term problems.

‘These can range from mood and thinking problems, including the most severe cases to a type of dementia commonly known as Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy,’ He said.

‘So far CTE has been largely diagnosed post-mortem – death.

Drake Rugby Biomarker Study

The Drake Foundation Rugby Biomarker Study began in 2015, involving elite rugby players from several Premiership and Championship rugby union and rugby league teams.

The study involved the collection of blood, saliva and urine to uncover potential biomarkers of injury, as well as the use of advanced neuroimaging techniques and cognitive testing.

The project is investigating any changes involving participation in elite rugby.

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‘However, being able to detect an injury during a player’s play is critical to being able to offer early advice and treatment, manage symptoms appropriately – as misdiagnosis is common – and these players improve long-term outcomes.

Today’s results come from the Drake Rugby Biomarker Study conducted by researchers from Imperial College London, University College London, Rugby Football Union and clubs in rugby union and rugby league in the UK.

The Drake Rugby Biomarker Study assessed 41 male and three female elite rugby players, all of whom had anonymised data.

The research team used advanced neuroimaging techniques to visualize the players’ brains compared to control participants.

Techniques include advanced magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), including diffusion tensor imaging, which allows the assessment of microscopic structural damage.

The increased presence of small microscopic hemorrhages (hemorrhages) between players may indicate damage, and potentially neurodegeneration – the loss of nerve cells – that characterizes diseases including Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

Derek Hill, Professor of Medical Imaging Science at University College London, who was not involved in the study, explained that the brain gap may not have been damaged.

“The MRI methods they use are sensitive to changes, but not specific to the cause of the change,” he said.

‘Brain scans can be altered by factors other than irreversible brain damage.

‘For example, dehydration and certain medications can result in changes in the fluid balance in the brain that can be picked up by advanced MRI.’

According to the Drake Foundation, rugby has 'changed beyond all recognition' since the 1990s.  Pictured is Jamie Roberts (left) of the British and Irish Lions with Jean de Villiers of South Africa during the second rugby union Test match in Pretoria in June 2009

According to the Drake Foundation, rugby has ‘changed beyond all recognition’ since the 1990s. Pictured is Jamie Roberts (left) of the British and Irish Lions with Jean de Villiers of South Africa during the second rugby union Test match in Pretoria in June 2009

Even if the results are suggestive of brain damage, the long-term effects of this damage are ‘not clear’, Professor Hill said.

“A longer study will be needed to determine the harmful long-term effects of the changes in the brain,” he said.

concerns in rugby

As a contact sport, rugby has frequent body impacts and the risk of accidental head…

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