Brain disease found in two former rugby league players

It is the first time the disease has been identified in former players of the code

Australian rugby league legend Peter Sterling says he will donate his brain to science following the discovery of a disease linked to repeated concussions in American sport in two former Australian rugby league players. It is the first time the disease has been identified in the brains of former players of the code.

Sterling said on Thursday that he had made the decision amid growing concern about chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, a degenerative brain disease that has been found in former players of American football, ice hockey, football, rugby union and others exposed to repeated head injury.

“This has been an ongoing concern as we learn more in the future,” he told Macquarie Sports radio. “I’ve said yes to donating my brain to science in the future and I believe it is going to help players in the years to come.”

“I’m not scared but I am concerned,” Sterling said. “The decision to donate my brain was a decision not taken lightly but I think it’s important that something like that can help so that we know more and we can take the appropriate steps as that knowledge becomes readily available.”


Researchers and clinicians from Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, NSW Health and the University of Sydney’s Brain and Mind Centre made the discovery in two donated brains from middle-aged former professionals who played more than 150 NRL games over many years. Their identities have been kept confidential.

Lead author Associate Professor Michael Buckland said the changes in the two brains were "distinctive and definitive".

"I have looked at about 1,000 brains over the last 10 years, and I have not seen this sort of pathology in any other case before," he said. "The fact that we have now seen these changes in former rugby league players indicates that they, and likely other Australian collision sports players, are not immune to CTE, a disease that has gained such high profile in the United States. "

Former Manly rugby union player Barry Taylor is the only other case of CTE identified in an Australian sportsperson. The disease, originally called punch-drunk syndrome to describe the plight of ex-boxers, can often lead to depression and other behavioural disturbances in younger people.

Symptoms in older people, however, may be indistinguishable from Alzheimer’s disease. It can only be diagnosed confidently by examination of the brain after death. The only known risk factor for CTE is repeated concussions and blows that don’t cause signs or symptoms.