Rugby Players Found to Have 'Concerning' Damage to Their Brains in Study

Rugby players have been found to have "concerning" and "unexpected" damage to their brain structure in a study.

Researchers analyzed the brains of 44 elite rugby league and rugby union players, 21 of whom had recently sustained a "mild" head injury.

The study, which was led by researchers at Imperial College London, U.K., and was published in the journal Brain Communications, found reductions in the volume of white matter in around 50 percent of the group of elite players.

White matter sits deep within the brain and contains millions of nerve fibers. It connects brain cells, enabling them to communicate with each other, and plays a key role in making numerous everyday tasks possible, including thought and balance.

The reduction in white matter tissue volume "may be an early sign of an active neurodegenerative process" that "might increase the risk of neurodegenerative disease in later life," such as chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) or Alzheimer's disease, the study explained.

CTE is a progressive neurodegenerative disease linked to brain trauma from repeated impacts to the head and concussion.

23 percent of the rugby players, meanwhile, exhibited signs of diffuse axonal injury (DAI), which happens when the brain shifts inside the skull, and diffuse vascular injury (DVI), which is micro-bleeding on the brain, both of which can lead to long-term brain damage.

"These changes were seen in both players with and without a recent head injury," the study found.

Head injuries are the most commonly reported injuries in professional rugby, accounting for roughly 20 percent of injury cases, according to existing research cited in the study.

A 2017 study on the brains of 202 deceased people who had played American football found evidence of CTE in 87 percent of cases. 99 percent of the 111 NFL players in the study had the condition.

White matter volume typically increases until the age of around 40, whereas the rugby players who were assessed in the Imperial College London study had an average age of 25  years old, the oldest being 31 years old.

The study described the finding as "abnormal" and "unexpected" but said that further investigation is required.

Karl Zimmerman, lead author of the research and a research technician at Imperial's Department of Brain Sciences, said in a statement: "The implications on an individual level of the brain changes associated with elite rugby participation are unclear, although obviously it is concerning to see these changes in some of the players' brains.

He went on: "Long-term studies are now needed of both active and retired rugby players to investigate the effect of participation on long-term brain health."

Other academics not involved in the research have called for studies involving significantly larger numbers of participants, and repeated assessment carried out over several years.

Virginia Newcombe, a Health Foundation clinician scientist fellow at the University of Cambridge, U.K. who was not involved in the research, said in a statement: "So far the diagnosis of CTE has largely been made post-mortem (after death). However, being able to detect injury while a player is still playing is key to be able to offer earlier advice and treatment, manage symptoms appropriately (as misdiagnosis is common) and improve the long-term outcomes of these players.

"Such knowledge is also crucial to inform ways to ensure that sports can be played safely and minimize any long-term risks while still allowing sport to be enjoyed by all."

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A stock image shows a rugby team. A study has found "concerning" signs of brain tissue changes in rugby players. Getty Images