Half of elite adult rugby players have shown an unexpected reduction in brain volume and almost a quarter display abnormalities in brain structure, according to new research.
The Drake Foundation, which funded the study conducted by the Imperial College London, has called for rule changes to protect players due to the risks of concussion. The research team – in collaboration with rugby union and league clubs across the United Kingdom – used advanced neuroimaging techniques to look at the brains of current elite rugby players compared to control subjects that don’t play the sport.
The results, published in the journal Brain Communications, found an association between participating in elite rugby and changes in brain structure. The study, the first of its kind, involved 44 rugby players (41 male) from seven unnamed clubs who had suffered a mild injury.
The research found that 23 per cent experienced changes in their brain structure, specifically in the neuronal wiring (white matter) and blood vessels of the brain, while 50 per cent showed an unexpected reduction in brain volume.
The Rugby Football Union, which supported the study, announced it would undertake more research into head-impact exposure and long-term brain health as well as a number of other plans to address the risks to rugby players. The Drake Foundation has invested more than $4 million into studying the long and short-term effects of rugby on brain health.
“I have been passionate about sport since I was a young boy but I have seen in recent years how the power of sport has intensified and the very obvious effects that can have on elite athletes,” said Drake Foundation founder James Drake.
“I have invested in research into the relationship between head impacts in sport and player brain health for almost a decade because I have been concerned about the long-term brain health of sportspeople, including elite rugby players.
“Common sense dictates that the number and ferocity of impacts, both in training and actual play, need to be significantly reduced. These latest results add further support to this notion, particularly when coupled with existing findings across sport and anecdotal evidence.
“Since rugby was professionalised in the 1990s, the game has changed beyond all recognition. Players are now generally bigger and more powerful, so we have to be mindful of all the ramifications that increased impacts will have on their bodies.