No ‘startling evidence’ of brain damage found in rugby study
Neurologist leading research on Trinity’s Under-20 season does not support underage ban
The neurologist leading the as yet unpublished study on Trinity’s Under-20 rugby side has said more work needs to be done to assess the impact of contact sports in general. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
The was no “startling evidence” of brain damage revealed in a study of rugby players competing in the Leinster Senior Cup over the course of a full season, according to research carried out in Trinity College Dublin.
However, the neurologist leading the as yet unpublished study has warned it does not give the sport a clean bill of health and more work needs to be done to assess the impact of contact sports in general – and rugby in particular – on the brain.
Consultant neurologist at St James’s Hospital Dr Colin Doherty also questioned the commitment of sporting bodies towards funding independent research in the area. He accused the IRFU of having “its head in the sand” when it comes to the cumulative impact of blows to the head on players at all levels.
Dr Doherty, who is also a senior lecturer at Trinity College School of Medicine, acknowledged recent comments by Dr Bennet Omalu, the neuropathologist renowned for his work on chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the brain disease caused by concussion, in which he called for a global ban of contact sports at underage level.
Dr Doherty questioned the wisdom of such a ban suggesting that it could be both extreme and counterproductive. “I don’t believe there is enough evidence to say a ban would be effective in dealing with the issue although Dr Omalu has raised an important point and we have to take it seriously when someone with his reputation tells us we are exposing our children to the possibility of serious cumulative brain damage”.
However, he said “the evidence does not support a complete ban on contact sports” and he questioned the wisdom of banning such sports among children. “If you were to stop contact sports, many children would effectively do nothing and, given the levels of obesity we have in the country, that would be very negative.”
He said that regardless of whether people agreed with Dr Omalu, “what we can say is that we are not taking what he is describing seriously enough.”
Before the start of the 2015-2016 schools rugby season, Dr Doherty’s Trinity College-based research group carried out what he described as a “comprehensive” study of the brain function of a team of senior rugby players from an elite south county Dublin school.
Markers of blood brain barrier function found in the blood were taken as were brain images and cognitive tests. The same tests were then carried out when the season ended and, according to Dr Doherty, no startling anomalies emerged.
“There is no startling evidence to show that every kid who takes a bang to the head on a rugby pitch is going to be impaired but what we don’t know yet are the consequences of playing rugby over several seasons. We have no evidence of the cumulative impact of playing the sport which is why we are going to continue to study it.”
The study is ongoing and last season focused on Trinity’s Under-20 team with sideline tests carried out on players substituted with head injuries.
He commended the IRFU for the work done recognising the problem of concussion at all levels of the game but said it was effectively “ignoring the other question, the CTE question which is the impact of a cumulative damage.”
“No one seems interested in funding this study,” he says. He put the total cost at €2 million over three years, a figure which would also include a concussion clinic in St James’s Hospital. “It is not terribly expensive but despite the fact that we are the only people in the country who are doing it and the only people who can do it, we are still not getting any interest from the IRFU or anybody else.”
Symptoms of CTE initially include a range of ailments such as dizziness and headaches, but these issues may not manifest themselves until a number of years after the trauma occurs. As the condition deteriorates, patients can experience memory loss and progressive dementia among other things.