Neurodegeneration linked to repetitive head injury found in brains of former Australian sports players

Over half of the brains donated to the Australian Sports Brain Bank have signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease associated with repeated blows to the head, researchers have found.

Data from the first three years of the national brain bank shows that of the first 21 donors – all of whom participated in sports with risks of repetitive head injury – all but one donor had some form of neurodegeneration, including 12 who were found to have CTE .

“The 21 donors came from a range of sports, but 17 of them either came from the AFL or one of the rugby codes,” said neuropathologist Michael Buckland of Sydney’s Royal Prince Alfred Hospital and the University of Sydney.

CTE, which can only be diagnosed post-mortem, is associated with behavioral, mental and cognitive impairments, including memory loss, personality changes and depression.

Symptoms typically appear years or even decades after brain injury is sustained.

CTE was first found in boxers more than 90 years ago (originally known as punch-drunk syndrome), but has more recently been described in former players of American football, ice hockey and soccer.

“Almost all of our donors, they or their families, signed up for the brain donation because they were exhibiting signs or symptoms that something was wrong with their brain,” Dr Buckland said.

“So it’s very much a selected population, and we can’t make any claims about the prevalence of CTE in the sporting community.”

Dr Michael Buckland (left) is the founding director of the Australian Sports Brain Bank.(ABC News: Patrick Galloway)

But Dr Buckland said the preliminary findings, published today in the Medical Journal of Australiaconfirmed the existence of CTE in former Australian sports players, after a handful of cases had been identified in recent years.

“Our main purpose of the Sports Brain Bank was to actually see if Australian sports players also had CTE… and once we looked at that at-risk population, CTE was easy to find, “Dr Buckland said.

Young and old affected, several died by suicide

The researchers found three of the brain donors with CTE were under the age of 35, and six of the 12 donors with CTE had died by suicide.

Dr Buckland said the donor group was too small to draw any firm conclusions about whether CTE was a possible risk factor for suicide, but said the findings were nonetheless “alarming”.

“I do think it’s something that requires further investigation and investment,” he said.

Researchers using scientific equipment in a laboratory.
The Australian Sports Brain Bank, in Sydney, conducts extensive research into sports-related concussions.(Supplied)

The researchers identified CTE in the brains of older, former sports professionals with long playing careers, as well in their younger counterparts.

“There were definitely younger people that had played under modern concussion guidelines,” Dr Buckland said.

“The other disturbing thing was that it’s not just restricted to professional players – there were people that had played at either the amateur level or the semi-professional level that also had CTE.”

Reducing head impacts in sport

In recent years, there have been significant rule changes in several sporting codes to reduce the chances of impact to the head, and rule changes around dealing with concussed players.

Both the NRL and AFL now sideline concussed players for a minimum of 11 and 12 days respectivelyto ensure players are fully recovered before they return to competition.

Leave a Comment