Australia’s first sports brain bank launched to find head injury and disease link

Colin Scotts has suffered thousands of head knocks over his football career, but he can recall the worst – the dizziness morphed into pain, blocking his ability to absorb and answer basic questions such as where he was. His brain had “shut off”, but his team encouraged him to get back onto the field, not realising that what he desperately needed was time to rest and heal. “After our professional football careers, yes, there are issues with obesity, drugs, and we’ve been put down because ‘we can’t get back into society because of our egos or we don’t get the money’,” said Mr Scotts, the first Australian to be drafted into the US National Football League (NFL). “But in reality, for a lot of us the aggressive spells, the issues, come down to mental illness, and I believe it’s from all the banging on the head.” Mr Scotts, 54, is one of six former sportsmen who have pledged their brain to Australia’s first sports brain bank, which will be launched at Sydney University’s Brain and Mind Centre on Tuesday. They are calling on athletes from a range of sporting codes – whether or not they’ve had a head injury – to pledge their brain so that researchers can study the relationship between concussion, head injury and Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), a neurodegenerative disease found in people with a history of repetitive brain trauma. The cause of CTE has yet to be established, but the disease has been found in hundreds of deceased NFL players in the US, sparking a billion-dollar class action lawsuit. It has also been found in former Manly player Barry “Tizza” Taylor, whose brain was sent to Boston University researchers after his death at 77. The other athletes donating their brains are former AFL players Sam Blease and Daniel Chick; former rugby union player Peter FitzSimons; and former NRL players Ian Roberts and Shaun Valentine. Associate Professor Michael Buckland said the aim of the brain bank was to find out how prevalent CTE is in Australia. They’re aiming for 500 brains over the next 10 years. “Barry Taylor’s diagnosis is a wake-up call. CTE has been diagnosed in hundreds of athletes in the US, as well as Canada, the United Kingdom, Ireland, and Brazil, and we need to learn how to prevent and treat the disease,” he said. “There are some people who say it’s not a problem in Australia, that it’s all just smoke and mirrors, so the bank is an important first step.” The Australian Sports Brain Bank – a collaboration between Sydney University and Royal Prince Alfred Hospital – is the first international partner of Concussion Legacy Foundation’s (CLF) Global Brain Bank. Chris Nowinski, co-founder of CLF, said researchers currently believed that “energy going into the brain was causing movement of the brain tissue, straining the brain cells and their fragile axons”. “For some reason it appears that inflammation begins and somehow the process that gets sparked spirals out of control to where even after you stop getting hit in the head, the lesions grow and the disease spreads,” he said. FitzSimons said the move was long overdue. “Instead of us sending our brains to Boston, it’s wonderful that we’ve pioneered our own research, working in tandem with the people in Boston, to get on top of what is a growing problem,” he said. “My own background in it – I’ve been knocked in the head – it worries me, the effect that it’s had. It’s an important initiative.” Symptoms of CTE – memory loss, impaired judgment, aggression, depression – can appear years or even decades after the last brain injury. At present, CTE can only be diagnosed during an autopsy. Mr Scotts, now a mentor at Scots College, said he told students to not play contact sports until they’re over 12 years of age. “We can fix the heart, we can replace the organs, but we can’t fix or replace the brain,” he said. “I might develop brain disease, so I’m monitoring myself and doing everything that I can – exercise, nutrition, sleeping, studying.”

The Age, 26 March 2018 ;

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